On January 1, 2018, the Israeli government ordered African asylum seekers, nearly 40,000, to leave the country in 90 days or face imprisonment. The government claims that most are economic migrants. The majority of them, however, originally came from Eritrea or Sudan having escaped political oppression and war. Their stories have sparked a moral debate in Israel and human rights groups have criticized the government’s actions.
Africans seeking asylum in Israel first arrived crossing from Egypt. In late 2005, nearly 2,000 Sudanese refugees camped outside the U.N.’s refugee office for weeks, in Cairo’s Mustafa Mahmud Square. They complained about racism and unemployment in Cairo, and demanded to be relocated to a third country. Some had floated the idea of going to Israel, first, as a joke. For most Sudanese, particularly Muslims, Israel was seen in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, an “enemy state.” But on December 30, 2005, Egyptian police, using excessive force, entered the square and uprooted the camp. Scores died and no one was held accountable. Thus, somewhat ironically, some headed towards Israel, and over the years, others followed. Their lives in Israel haven’t been easy either, facing racism and ambiguous legal status.
Many of them arrived in Israel through human trafficking networks and were tortured or raped on the way. In Israel, the Geshner Clinic is the only facility that provides mental health services to African refugees. A deadline to leave has only added to their stress and depression, as their futures are uncertain.