By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
Earlier this month I wrote about African illegal immigrants in Israel. In response, Rabbi John Rosove of Los Angeles put me in touch with Sigal Rozen, field worker on behalf of an organization that deals with Eritreans and Sudanese asylum seekers in South Tel Aviv. Last Tuesday, my wife and I were privileged to tour the area in the company of this remarkable woman.
Support for Sigal’s work comes from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees as well as private and corporate donations. Many Israelis volunteer their time and know-how. The school system has been generous in providing for the education of the asylum seekers virtually all of whom were born in this country.
The immigrants had to spend a lot of money and to take enormous risks to get to Israel. They argue persuasively that they’ve come not for economic reasons but to get out of oppressive and dangerous regimes. All in all, those who got to Israel constitute less of a problem for this country than I had originally assumed. Here’re some of the reasons:
The border with Sinai that enabled unscrupulous smugglers to bring illegal migrants to Israel has now been sealed. Though it stops genuine asylum seekers from entering, it also prevents not only the terrible and cruel exploitation of hapless individuals but it also thwarts criminal activities such as smuggling into Israel of drugs, weapons to potential terrorists and prostitutes.
By all accounts, the overwhelming majority of the Eritreans and Sudanese who’re in Israel now yearn to return to their homelands and will do so as soon as political circumstances permit which could only come about through regime change.
If they were allowed to work in Israel legally, virtually all of them could find employment and improve their current living conditions. We were told that most of them are smart and resourceful people. Some work now: though they’re illegally in the country, there’s a court ruling that people who employ them cannot be fined. As a result, many do have work usually as cleaners; some of their employers are local municipalities. A few newcomers have opened businesses around the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station.
If Israel ceased employing or at least reduced the numbers of the workers from Asia and elsewhere that are currently in the country on temporary permits, these asylum seekers could fill the vacancies without taking away work from Israelis.
This, in turn, would ease the burden on South Tel Aviv where many of the Eritreans and Sudanese now live in often appalling squalor that creates problems for the neighbourhood as a whole, because the available infrastructure cannot cope with the influx. The sewage system, for example, is said to be dangerously inadequate.
Life is very difficult not only for the migrants but also for many of the local residents who’ve seen their neighbourhood being taken over almost beyond recognition. Sigal Rozen showed great understanding for the plight of newcomers and locals alike.
Like so many other advocacy groups in Israel, the people she works with are turning to the courts in search of compassionate justice. They’re having a measure of success and hope to make further progress. Demonstrations by asylum seekers are signs of desperation more than anger. The way local residents greeted Sigal during our walk suggests that she is very important in their lives. It’s easy to see why.