For African migrants, Israel is the land of broken dreams

Tumuzgee Aman fled his native Eritrea three years ago in search of a better life, making his way to Israel after a treacherous journey across Egypt's Sinai desert. But after briefly finding work in a copper mine, his dream came crashing down when Israeli immigration police threw him in jail.

Aman, 36, now spends his days languishing in the Holot detention center — dozens of kilometers (miles) from civilization in southern Israel's Negev Desert — trapped in a web of bureaucracy that prevents him from leaving the facility yet also bars Israel from expelling him.

"Israel is the same as Eritrea" said Aman, whose family remains free in Tel Aviv. "They separated me from my wife and daughter" he said. "Many people go crazy here."

Such frustrations boiled over this week into protests by thousands of African migrants, whose presence has confronted the Jewish state with key questions about its very identity: Who is a refugee, and do Jews have a special duty to be accommodating in light of their own history?

The Africans, most from the strife-ridden countries of Eritrea and Sudan, say they are fleeing conflict and persecution and are seeking refugee status. Israel says they are merely economic migrants in search of work.

The Africans began pouring into Israel in 2007, with their numbers steadily growing until Israel built a fence along the Egyptian border in 2012. While the inflow has been halted, roughly 54,000 Africans remain, a relatively large number for a country of just 8 million people.

At first, Israel tolerated the new arrivals, permitting their entry and even turning a blind eye as many found menial jobs in hotels and restaurants. As the numbers swelled, however, many Israelis began to fear the influx threatened the country's Jewish character. One right-wing lawmaker, Miri Regev, even referred to the migrants as a "cancer."

The vast majority of Africans remain free, concentrated in the slums of southern Tel Aviv. But an estimated 2,000 people — who either arrived after an "anti-infiltration law" was passed in 2012 or whose visas have expired — are being held at the newly built Holot detention center and the neighboring Saharonim prison.

Holot was opened last month after the Israeli Supreme Court said hundreds of Africans were being held illegally at the adjacent prison.

Holot is meant to be an open facility. But those held within say conditions are no better.

Residents are permitted to leave but must sign in three times a day and return for an evening curfew.

The camp is surrounded by a double fence, topped with barbed wire and patrolled by security guards. The winters are bitter cold, and summer temperatures can soar to 40 degrees (100 degrees Fahrenheit.) Inmates sleep 10 people to a room, all sharing a single bathroom. Anybody who violates the rules gets sent to the Saharonim prison, where conditions are even harsher.

Beersheba, the nearest city, is 70 kilometers (50 miles) away, leaving few options for work or recreation.

In an interview just outside the facility, Aman said he came to Israel after being forced to serve in the Eritrean army in a war against Ethiopia. He later spent time fighting for an Eritrean opposition group before heading to Israel. Just over three years ago, he said he found a job in a copper mine near the southern city of Eilat. But after his experience in prison, his spirit has been broken.

"I think this government has closed its ears, closed its heart, I think there's no solution," Aman said.

While Israel says it wants to deport the Africans, international law bars it from sending them back to their countries because their lives would be in danger. With no other country volunteering to take them in, critics say Israel has dragged its feet in reviewing claims for refugee status.

Israel grants automatic citizenship to anyone who is Jewish. The migrants are largely Muslim and Christian.

"There is not one case of an Eritrean or a Sudanese who have received refugee status in Israel," said Elizabeth Tsurkov, a project director at the Hotline for Migrant Workers, an advocacy group. Citing official government statistics, she said Israel has approved less than 1 percent of refugee requests from all countries over the past four years.

In contrast, more than 80 percent of Eritrean refugee claims and nearly 70 percent of Sudanese claims in 2012 were recognized worldwide, including in Western countries like the United States, Norway and Italy, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

"It's a recognition rate that's abysmal. It's not comparable to anything in the Western world," Tsurkov said of Israel's record.

Human rights groups consider Eritrea one of the most repressive countries in the world because of its crackdowns on political dissidents and independent media, and its limitations of civil liberties and men forced into years of conscription. Sudan has been riven by coups and civil war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Its president, Omar al-Bashir, has been charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court.

Israel's Foreign Ministry said that the Interior Ministry is examining hundreds of asylum requests in coordination with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and that all applications are given "thorough treatment" and all international legal obligations are honored. "Israel tries to balance the need to control its borders with the need to protect the human rights of those who enter," it said.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the fact that people who come from a country with a miserable human rights record does not automatically make them a refugee. He said applicants must prove that they face the risk of personal harm or persecution if they return home.

Palmor acknowledged that the issue has created a difficult quandary, especially given Israel's own history. Founded in the wake of the Holocaust, Israel provided refuge for hundreds of thousands of Jewish survivors of the Nazi genocide, as well as Jews fleeing oppression in other parts of the world.

Some Israelis have claimed that given this past, Israel has a special responsibility to help people in such dire conditions. The government, however, believes the African migrants don't fit into this category.

"We definitely have a special responsibility toward refugees, but not toward people who are not refugees, who are working migrants," Palmor said. "At what point do you say, 'OK, I'm responsible. But I'm not responsible for all the misery in Africa and I can't keep my doors open for anyone that wants to come in because there will be no end to it.'"