Israel to close door on African influx
EILAT, Israel — Vika Duvinsky and her family are among the last Israelis living in a grim slum that locals call 'Sing Sing' after the notorious American prison. The rest are African migrants or asylum-seekers.
What began in 2006 as a trickle of refugees sneaking over the border has turned into a deluge, transforming the face of this Red Sea resort and other towns, and prompting Israel to build a vast border fence and internment camp to deter Africans from seeking a better life here.
The sudden influx of arrivals, many fleeing civil war-ravaged Sudan and the horrors of Darfur, or the brutal dictatorship in Eritrea, has a elicited a mixed reaction in Israel.
That's particularly apparent with 14-year-old Vika, who has struggled to deal with the unexpected transformation of her neighbourhood.
Sitting in the tiny living room of one of her neighbours, she gently strokes the back of three-year-old Flora Hussein, while listening to the little girl's mother cry as she tells of their escape from Sudan to the Jewish state.
And yet just moments earlier, this Israeli teenager had spoken venomously of the flood of Africans she finds so foreign, so threatening and so unwanted.
"I want them to leave Israel. You can't behave like this," she says, recounting how groups of young African men congregate outside 'Sing Sing' in the balmy evenings, making lewd comments to passers-by.
"I'm scared to come home."
She says the Africans have turned an already depressed housing estate into a garbage dump littered with beer cans, dirty nappies, old clothes and other rubbish.
"They have to understand they can't come and pollute our land," she said.
This mix of compassion and resentment reflects Israel's ambivalence towards the influx of Africans, whose numbers have swelled to some 35,000 since the first small groups began crossing the Egyptian border just four years ago.
The plight of the African refugees and stories of their suffering strike a chord in the Jewish state, which was founded in the wake of the Nazi Holocaust and after centuries of persecution.
But it has also touched on a deep-seated fear -- that these newcomers could upset the delicate status quo in Israel, overwhelming the state's Jewish character and swamping its social services.
"In the beginning, we saw it as a humanitarian mission. But we made a mistake. From 500, we now have about 10,000 here in Eilat," said Nahum Seri, a city official charged with dealing with the influx.
Seri said Eilat, with its 60,000 residents, was collapsing under the burden of hosting the Africans who have flocked to the town due to its proximity to the Egyptian border and the availability of jobs in its tourism industry.
"The government needs to decide -- if they are refugees, they must be treated as refugees but if they are infiltrators, then they must be dealt with as infiltrators," said Seri.
In recent weeks, the Israeli government appears to have made its decision.
"From investigations carried out, it appears that these are not refugees but job-seeking migrants," a government statement said, noting that out of 5,000 people investigated, only two had been granted refugee status.
"This wave is growing and it threatens the jobs of Israelis. It is changing the face of the state and we have to stop it," said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, announcing plans for a camp where the Africans would be housed and sheltered but denied the opportunity to work.
Construction has also begun on a huge 250-kilometre (155-mile) barrier along the Egyptian border aimed at stopping the influx.
Human rights groups and African asylum-seekers have slammed the move, saying they should be entitled to refugee status under international law.
"Most of those asking for asylum are from Eritrea and Sudan and they are entitled to collective protection under international law, so Israel has a responsibility to them," said Nirit Moskovich, spokeswoman for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
Sitting on a street corner waiting to be offered work, 28-year-old Marena Tolde Brahan from Eritrea says that he, like many of his countrymen, fled to Israel to escape forced conscription into the military.
"There are many problems in my country," he says. "The (Israeli) government and the UN need to have a solution for us."
The United States, the European Union and Britain have all granted asylum to Eritreans escaping conscription "on the grounds that national service is used as a measure of political repression and that anyone forcibly returned to Eritrea is likely to be tortured," New York-based Human Rights Watch says.
There are also fears for those still trying to make their way through Egypt's Sinai desert, says Tolde Brahan.
"There are many, many brothers and women waiting in the Sinai. If the way is closed, there will be a big problem for them," he says. "Maybe they will die."
In recent weeks, Egypt has been investigating UN reports that people traffickers are holding hundreds of Eritreans hostage in the Sinai.
But the refugees also face dangers from the Egyptian authorities. At least 85 people have been shot dead by border guards while trying to cross into Israel since 2007.
But mostly they worry that the hope they have found in Israel will be taken away.
"I don't have anyone in Sudan, everyone either died or ran away, I have only my children," said Sumaya Hussein, Vika Duvinsky's neighbour. "I lost everything," she says, weeping into her hands.
Here in Israel, she rebuilt her life. The apartment in 'Sing Sing' is tiny, but the spartan living room has an old television and a stereo and when she goes to prepare dinner for her four children, there is chicken in the freezer.
"We tried other ways but all options were closed for us," she says, holding up her Sudanese passport.
"It says: 'Valid in all countries except Israel,' but we took the risk in order to keep our children alive."