3:00pm

Wed March 21, 2012
Middle East

As Illegal Immigrants Increase, Israel Plans To Act

Originally published on Sun March 25, 2012 7:08 am

The place is Tel Aviv, but it doesn't look at all like Israel: Dozens of African men are sitting on broken stools and plastic at a makeshift restaurant.

Sudanese fare is on the menu. The men scoop up the stews and salads that remind them of home.

Abdullah Mohammad Mustafa started this restaurant with a couple of other African men who arrived in Israel five years ago from Sudan's troubled Darfur region. They are among some 40,000 Africans who have come to Israel illegally, and many have congregated in neighborhoods in Tel Aviv.

Mustafa says he hoped the business would be part of a new life, but now Israel is moving against them, and he's giving up on that dream. "For me, I think this is the last year in Israel," he says. "We tried to make a business and we failed. So we cannot spend the rest of our life here. We cannot waste our time for nothing. This year most of the people will leave Israel."

Mustafa is among the many Africans and Asians who have been arriving in Israel in recent years, and most have been sneaking across the country's porous southern border with Egypt.

Israel Plans Several Measures

Israel is now taking a series of steps to stop the influx and reverse the flow. This summer, Israel will begin deporting those who agree to leave voluntarily. Other parts of the plan are still under construction — like a 150-mile fence being built along the border with Egypt. And there will also be a massive detention center.

"Like many other countries in the world, Israel faces a serious problem with illegal immigration," says Josh Hantman, a spokesman for Israel's Defense Ministry. "Israel always has to find the most humane way of dealing with this tricky issue."

He says the detention center, which will be completed later this year, will have spacious rooms, computers and a sports center. Detainees will have access to lawyers and health care.

By the end of this year, Israeli officials say, the facility will be able to hold several thousand people. By the time it is fully built, it will have a total capacity of 11,000 people — making it one of the largest detention facilities in the world.

Human-Rights Group Objects

Physicians for Human Rights, a private group that works closely with the African community in Israel, is often the first stop for new immigrants. It has extensive files documenting the torture and violence that many immigrants faced in other countries before reaching Israel.

"We see from other countries that the effect of detention centers on asylum seekers that went through trauma in their home countries, or on their way to Israel, will be very harmful for their health, both mental and physically," says Shachar Shoham, the director of the Migrants Department at Physicians for Human Rights.

Shoham says Israel already has a policy of detaining some of the people who enter the country without permission. Up until now, they've been sent to Ketziot, a sprawling prison in southern Israel.

The site of the new detention center is adjacent to Ketziot. Shoham says she fears it will become an extension of the prison, rather than a separate facility.

Mustafa knows Ketziot all too well. He was kept there for over a year, without being told the charges against him, he says, or having access to a lawyer.

He says he nearly went crazy there, not knowing what would happen to him.

Many African immigrants are young people "and they are looking for their future. If you put them in a detention center it will drive them crazy," Mustafa says.

Seeking Another Destination

At age 35, Mustafa says he already feels old. It's been nearly 10 years since he left Darfur, and Israel is the third place he has sought asylum.

"We cannot ever go back [to Darfur], but we will try to see another place like Kenya or Uganda," Mustafa says.

This week, he joined hundreds of people protesting Israel's decision to begin deporting some Africans. None of us, he says, are really going home.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Israel is adopting some tough new policies aimed at illegal immigration. Tens of thousands of Africans live and work in Israel without the proper legal papers. As part of a plan to deport them and to deter new Africans from arriving, Israel is building a massive new detention center. And Sheera Frenkel reports that plan is drawing some harsh criticism from human rights groups.

SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: Classic Sudanese fare is on the menu in this makeshift restaurant in central Tel Aviv. Dozens of men sit on broken stools and plastic chairs as they sponge up the stews and salads that remind them of home. Abdullah Mohammad Mustafa started this restaurant with a couple of other men who arrived in Israel five years ago from Darfur. He says he hoped the business would be part of a new life in Israel, but now he's given up on that dream.

ABDULLAH MOHAMMAD MUSTAFA: For me, I think this is the last year in Israel. Because we tried to make a business and we failed. So we cannot spend the rest of our life here. We cannot afford to waste our time for nothing.

FRENKEL: Like many other Africans who arrive in Israel through its porous southern border with Egypt, Mustafa works here illegally. Denying work permits is just part of Israel's new plan to ease out the 40,000 Africans who currently reside here and deter new people from arriving. This summer, Israel will begin deporting people who agree to leave voluntarily. Other parts of the plan are still under construction, like a 150-mile fence being built along Israel's border with Egypt. A massive detention center and complex is the final part.

JOSH HANTMAN: Like many other countries in the world, Israel faces a serious problem with illegal immigration. Israel always has to find the most humane way of dealing with this tricky issue.

FRENKEL: That's Josh Hantman, a spokesman for Israel's Defense Ministry. He says that the detention center, which will be completed later this year, will have spacious rooms, computers, a sports center and daily access to lawyers and health care. By the end of this year, Israeli officials say the facility will be able to hold several thousand people. By the time it's fully built, it will have a total capacity of 11,000 people, making it one of the largest detention facilities in the world.

Physicians for Human Rights is an NGO that works closely with the African community in here. They are often the first stop for new people arriving in the country and have extensive files documenting the torture and violence they faced on their way to Israel. Shachar Shoham is the director of the Migrants Department at Physicians for Human Rights.

SHACHAR SHOHAM: We see from other countries in the effect of detention on asylum seekers that went through trauma in their home countries, or on their way to Israel, will be very harmful for their health, both mentally and physically.

FRENKEL: Shoham says Israel already has a policy of detaining some of the people who enter the country. Up until now, they've been sent to Ketziot, a sprawling prison in southern Israel. The site of the new detention center is actually adjacent to Ketziot. Shoham says she fears it will be more like an extension than a separate facility. Mustafa knows Ketziot all too well.

He was kept there for over a year, without being told the charges against him, he says, or having access to a lawyer. He says he nearly went crazy there, not knowing what would happen to him. He fears others will not fare will there.

MUSTAFA: Those who are in Israel, most of them are youth and they are looking for their future. So if you put them in a detention center, they will drive them crazy.

FRENKEL: At age 35, Mustafa says he's already old. It's been nearly 10 years since he left Darfur, and Israel is the third place he's sought asylum.

MUSTAFA: Darfur, we cannot ever go back, but we will try to see another place like Kenya or Uganda.

FRENKEL: This week, he joined a rally - hundreds of people protesting Israel's decision to begin deporting some of the Africans. None of us, he says, are really going home. For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.