This summer of protests has made for some unlikely street scenes in the usually urban refuge that is Tel Aviv; as the city’s African refugees, and the hundreds of mostly middle-class, Israeli protesters — who have been living in tent cities around Tel Aviv for the last few weeks, protesting the high cost of housing — cross paths in Levinsky Park, a popular hangout for the refugees, and currently the location of the city’s second largest tent city.
The two groups have even met to discuss whether the refugees should risk taking part in this grassroots protest. Yet as the refugees noted, they have very different realities in Israel, and whatever their complaints about their refugee status in Israel, many aim to stay.
African refugees seek asylum in Israel because it is the only progressive country in the region that is accessible from the war-ridden countries of Africa, explains Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator for the Hotline for Migrant Workers, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the rights of migrant workers and refugees in Israel. Yet the refugee situation has become a difficult one for the state, and with an estimated 27,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Israel, detention has become the default course of action in Israel, as well as the Hotline’s area of expertise.
The organization’s staff of lawyers, lobbyists and volunteers fight for the rights of these populations, particularly in detention centers, court and the public arena. They work with thousands of refugees and migrant workers each year, cooperating with the dozens of other non-profit organizations that have cropped up in the last decade to help solve the needs of this complex and impoverished population.
The Hotline has also become one of the go-to organizations for explaining the complexities of the issue, giving tours and presentations of the neighborhoods, housing, schools and public spaces that have become the center of the African refugee world in Tel Aviv. A proud highlight is the recently opened library for refugees and migrant workers, which has become a cultural center and meeting place for both kids and adults. (It also has a remarkable system for categorizing books; given the many different languages of the readers, the books are organized according to the emotions aroused in the readers — such as happy, sad, boring, exciting. The books move around the shelves as readers read and report on their feelings, and much as the readers themselves have been wandering around the continent, searching for a home.
Da’at has made the Hotline tour a regular stop for some of its trips, part of their thoughtful approach to giving visitors a better understanding of the complexities of Israel’s refugee situation.
What repeatedly occurs, remarks Sigal, is that Americans and Europeans visiting the Hotline immediately grasp the most sensitive issue, that the refugees represent a human rights conundrum for Israel. Israeli visitors, however, tend to react first to the demographic problem posed by the refugees — that is, their non-Jewish status and how that could play out in Israel’s constant demographic battle with its Arab population.
Once they get to know the refugees, however, their attitude changes, says Sigal. “Now they’re not scared to go around South Tel Aviv, to eat in the cool Eritrean restaurant, to understand that these are people like them, intelligent people who are just looking to live in peace.”