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Israel migrant worker protest: Strike over human rights enters third day

Dave Copeland / NBC News

A man holds a sign during a demonstration in south Tel Aviv against Israeli government policies towards African migrants.

TEL AVIV, Israel – A strike by thousands of migrant workers entered its third day Tuesday amid anger at new laws that allow Israel to indefinitely detain immigrants without visas.

The measure, approved by Israel’s parliament in December, has been condemned by critics as a violation of human rights.

Tens of thousands of migrants – mostly from north and east Africa – have crossed into Israel, seeking asylum from conflict.

However, the Israeli government fiercely contests their status as refugees, saying they left their countries only to seek work. It has begun a controversial process of mass arrests, taking the migrants to a mass detention center in the south of the country.

Eritreans and Sudanese have replaced the Palestinians as cheap workers ever since Israel built a security fence and wall around Gaza and the West Bank. Now they can be found working in cleaning and construction – doing the jobs that ordinary Israelis do not want.

“We're not criminals but we are people seeking freedom,” said Mohamed Khalil Osman Haron, a 25-year-old Sudanese migrant who has been in Israel since 2008.

Dave Copeland / NBC News

"We're not criminals but we are people seeking freedom," said Mohamed Khalil Osman Haron, a 25-year-old Sudanese migrant who has been in Israel since 2008.

“Our message to the world is that we need your help. We are called criminals and we're not.”

He was among hundreds of migrants and supporters who gathered for a demonstration at Lewinsky Park in southern Tel Aviv Tuesday. It followed a mass protest on Monday that saw a crowd of 20,000 convene at Rabin Square urging the Israeli government to change its policy.

Shewit Gheze, a 28-year-old woman from Eritrea, said: “Israelis are afraid that we are coming here to seek work but the truth is that we had to leave our houses and family.

“I have no problem to go back to my country one I feel safe but until that happens I must receive my rights here which we deserve. If we need to, we will walk all the way to Jerusalem to make our point.”

Dave Copeland / NBC News

African migrants in Lewinsky Park in south Tel Aviv listen to speeches during a demonstration against Israeli government policies.

Walyaldin Suliman, 30, from Sudan, added, described Israel's government as "racist," adding: “We came from a dictatorial state looking for human rights and stability as refugees. Israel is not giving us our rights as refugees."

However, many Israelis remain unconvinced and believe the rising migrant population has also brought higher levels of crime.

Hamdan Rami, a Tel Aviv shop owner, said: “They are not refugees but people who are seeking to work here and who are taking jobs from Israelis. I'm not racist but it is a well-known fact that in Africa they earned $20 a month and here they earn $1,000. Having them here is not easy for us, a lot of Israelis are scared and we have lots of thefts.”