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“Migrants in Israel are not criminals”

“Migrants in Israel are not criminals”


INTERVIEW – On January 19, 2014, the Catholic Church celebrates the 100th  World Day of Migrants and Refugees . On January 18, a Mass was celebrated in Jaffa for many migrants who live in Israel.   On January 5, thousands of Africans protested in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem against the refusal of the Israeli authorities to grant them refugee status. Here follows the reaction of Father
David Neuhaus, SJ, Patriarchal Vicar for the pastoral care of migrants.

1 . Why are African migrants in Israel no longer silent?

To understand this protest movement, you need an overview of the situation. It is estimated that there are 53,000 African asylum seekers currently living in Israel, most of whom come from Eritrea and Sudan. The Eritreans are mostly Orthodox and the Sudanese mostly Muslim. The protesters claim their presence in Israel as refugees and denounce the authorities’ refusal to examine their demands equally as individuals (through personal interviews). Today, when the migrants arrive in Israel through the Sinai and the Egyptian border, the State gives them group protection, not taking any action with the individual in order to understand their private situation. As a result, they are treated as human masses and without refugee status, they have no social rights (work, health, etc.). For informational purposes only, among asylum seekers coming from Eritrea none has received this status in Israel, while 60-70% of asylum seekers from the same country, but who have migrated to Europe have been given the status of third-country nationals.

The protesters also accuse Israel of persuading them to return to their countries (where war and disease are rampant). Israel proceeds in different ways by making their lives impossible, paying them some money to leave the country or putting them in prison or in detention camps. One has even been specially built in the south of Israel, its occupants may come and go during the day, but must check in three times and spend the night there. All these go against the international agreements signed by Israel. Finally, Israel may decide at any time to judge that the problems  in the migrants’ country of origin are“finished” and “resolved”.  For example, when there was the declaration of independence of South Sudan in July 2011, thousands of Sudanese were sent back to their country (while the United States had decided to wait to make such a decision , by monitoring the political developments of the new situation).  Since then, many Sudanese  who returned from Israel have died because of malaria or the civil war. Recently, on January 14, more than 200 civilians, fleeing the resumption of fighting in Malakal, drowned in the boat wreck that was overcrowded.

2 . What justifies such a policy on the part of Israel?

The problem is not economics. Some of the asylum seekers have found work. They represent a low-cost labor and without social rights. They contribute to the Israeli economy and have a good reputation in the construction industry, in hotel and catering work.

The problem is actually a populist. Mainly, the asylum seekers live in the poorest urban neighborhoods of cities.  For example, the very poor Jewish population of southern Tel Aviv,  finds itself surrounded by asylum seekers arriving in extremely precarious conditions (many people live in the same room, there are smells and sounds of another culture, and crime also explodes). Over the past few months several local events of Israelis against Africans have been organized.  Also, a strong popular demand puts pressure on the government to favor the expulsion of these people who, in their view, would harm the country’s identity. There is a whole vocabulary that stigmatizes these men and women who fled authoritarian regimes, and by miserable situations that qualify them as “infiltrators”. The migrants in Israel are not criminals. They simply ask for refugee status.

3 . Do you support this wave of protest?

Firstly, in this population of asylum seekers (Eritreans, Ethiopians and Sudanese), you should know that there are Catholics. These people should continue to live their faith and we must support them. For example, approximately 10% of the Eritrean migrant population is Catholic (of the Ge’ez rite). To serve this population, we have a new priest of the diocese of Adigrat in Ethiopia (Father Medhin), who can celebrate Mass in their rite, in Jaffa, Tel Aviv and Eilat. We also work with well-trained young Eritreans, including some former seminarians.

Secondly, as a Church, we must be aware of the general situation of all asylum seekers who arrive in Israel in order to better support them. By choice, the Church does not engage directly with politics, but works with Israeli NGOs dedicated to these populations. To do this, we must:

– Gather serious documentation of the experience of asylum seekers (trauma on the road, kidnapping, imprisonment, etc.).

– Know their rights (child care, hospitalization …)

– Support organizations that are trying to increase awareness in Israeli society

– Provide material and psychological support.

In this collaboration, we are fortunate to have Sister Azezet Kidane, a Comboni sister who is, in the Church, a true leader on world migration.

4 . What does the international community do?

The main problem is that here, the phenomenon of migration is international and, alas, the international community must also change. Many countries have to correct their attitudes .

Pope Francis has clearly demonstrated that the world of migration holds a special place in his heart. Very concerned about what is happening to the migrants, the Pope in his message for the “World Day of Migrants and Refugees” asks that the whole world reacts: “A change in attitude towards migrants and refugees is needed by all…”.

Here our Church of the Holy Land is already a world in danger, fighting for survival in a not very friendly region. But we are all brothers and sisters in our poverty. Our Church of the Holy Land, already poor and weak, is called to go outside of itself.  It is not easy because it is not a wealthy Church: it is a poor Church that must encounter an even poorer Church.

Statements gathered by Christophe Lafontaine