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Israel grapples with wave of north African migrants

Israelis and African migrants share their feelings about coexisting in one neighborhood of south Tel Aviv.

TEL AVIV - Ruthie Jacobi, a longtime resident of the gritty south side of Israel’s largest city, says she’s fed up. 

“Look at this,” said the 65-year-old retired schoolteacher, pointing to a small group of men fighting over a bicycle.  “These bicycles are all stolen, they come here to sell them, now they are quarrelling over it. It’s anarchy, nobody has control of it.”

The crowd melted away when police arrived.

Jacobi is not alone. Many residents are demanding that the government take control of the estimated 56,000 undocumented immigrants, mostly from northern Africa, who authorities say have settled in the country.

Locals in the south Tel Aviv neighborhoods of Neve Shanan and Shapira say about 40,000 of those migrants are living in their area alone.

They claim the local crime rate has risen and that many streets are no-go areas for Israelis, especially at night.

Anger has spilled over into outright violence in recent weeks. Early last month, about 1,000 Israelis took to the streets to demand that African immigrants be deported in the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Hatikva. The protesters yelled “Blacks out,” attacked Africans on the street and broke windows of stores belonging immigrants.

On Sunday, Israel’s High Court of Justice will likely decide the fate of the migrants, many of whom claim to be refugees fleeing conflicts in Sudan and Eritrea.

Judges will consider whether a legal amendment that permits the detention of any asylum-seeker for a period of up to three years is unconstitutional.

Baz Ratner / Reuters, file

Israeli immigration officers escort an African migrant carrying luggage in south Tel Aviv June 13, 2012.

Any migrant can be detained under the amendment, even those whom Israel has no intention of deporting because of dangers they would face to their lives upon their return.

About 1,700 migrants – including women and children – are already being held in a new, purpose-built detention center in the Negev Desert. It has a capacity of 3,000.

A legal petition by human rights groups argues that both Israeli and international law prohibits the detention of immigrants if it is not for the purpose of immediately deporting them.

The impending court decision and rising public hostility, worries migrants like Ismail Ahmed, who is originally from war-torn Sudan. 

“When I came from Sudan I realized that life was different here, much better than where I came from,” said Ahmed, who runs a small computer shop on Neve Shanan Street, a pedestrian area frequented by migrants. “But in the recent years, the last two years, I find that life is really getting harder, it’s threatening.”

“It takes me back to the same situation where I came from,” he said.

Where he came from is a nightmare.

Many of the migrants have traveled across the vast deserts of North Africa – in some cases, a journey that has taken more than three years. They speak of torture, beatings and rape along the way.

Until a year ago, Israel’s border with Egypt was just a line in the sand in the Sinai Desert marked with a few rolls of rusted barbed wire. Now authorities have constructed a 16-foot-high steel fence along its 144-mile stretch, making it virtually impossible for anyone to cross.

But Israel is still faced with the question of what to do with those who already have made it over the fence.

Migrants, and the charities working to help them, complain that the government has not processed enough asylum requests, leaving many of those in south Tel Aviv in legal limbo. 

Orit Marom is a spokesman for ASSAF, a nonprofit organization that helps refugees and asylum-seekers Israel. “It’s clear that those asylum-seekers that are living among us will stay here for some time," he said.

David Buimovitch / AFP - Getty Images, file

An Israeli protester waves a poster of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a demonstration against African migrants in Tel Aviv on July 24, 2012.

“Better we treat them as human beings, better we give them some rights, better we give them work permits in order that they will integrate normally in the different cities in Israel, than being a burden on south Tel Aviv residents, living with nothing.”

Israel’s government insists it will treat migrants with fairness, but says many are not refugees from conflict but rather are economic migrants.

Mark Regev, spokesman for the prime minister’s office, told NBC News: “These people who have entered Israel illegally will be treated fairly, according to international law.

“Some will be repatriated, some will be sent to third countries and some will be allowed to stay in Israel. But we see most of them as economic migrants, not refugees. Most of them are young men of working age, where are all the women and children?”

Some south Tel Aviv residents are pinning their hopes on new procedures under which undocumented migrants are held in a detention center until they are processed as Israeli citizens or deported.

But for now, the majority are still living freely in south Tel Aviv.

Tiran Rahum, an Israeli shopkeeper, talks to a group of concerned locals touring his neighborhood.

“We are the minority and they are the majority, they are the advantaged and we are the disadvantaged,” he said. “We pay all our taxes, they pay nothing.”

A few yards away, Mohammed Al Nour, a refugee from Sudan, described his life.

“Life is very hard in Israel, I cannot find work,” he said in English.

He then broke into Hebrew and described how he and about 40 of his friends had worked as laborers for a local building contractor for more than eight months. For the last two months they had not been paid and had no way of getting the money.

Al Nour and his friends then left to sleep in a children’s playground that has been converted into a shelter.

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