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Tough stance

Ulrike Schleicher, Tel Aviv / sacMarch 21, 2013

An initiative in Tel Aviv has been caring for refugees from Sudan and Eritrea for one year now. Its commitment is in stark contrast to the government's refugee policy, which is pressuring immigrants to leave the country.

Refugees stand in line for food at Levinsky Soup. Copyright: DW/Ulrike Schleicher Tel Aviv
Image: DW/U. Schleicher

Yigal Shtayim recalls very well the moment he decided to stop looking away. "It all started when somebody died in Levinsky Park," he said. "We didn't know exactly who he was, we just knew he was African and thought he was a refugee. In the end, we discovered he was a homeless guy from Ethiopia."

It was a cold winter and although the man was ill, he was sleeping outside. The artist Shtayim, the grandson of German Holocaust survivors from Berlin, was appalled - and ashamed - that no one was taking care of this man.

"Somebody dies, because no one takes care of him," he said. "How can that happen in a prosperous country like Israel?" Out of this shame and even more out of his anger towards the ignorance of some politicians and the prejudices of many fellow Israelis, Shtayim depicted the refugee situation on the Internet and asked others for help. Soon, the initiative "Levinsky Soup" was founded. Initially, it simply provided food for refugees. In the meantime, activists also help supply clothing and support in dealing with authorities. They also want to help build up childcare. Shtayim's initiative has caught on.

"In a short period of time, we reached a great number of helpful people over the Internet," he said. Some helpers are there regularly, some for longer periods, some come just once - each volunteer does what he or she can.

An African refugee looks for support at Levinsky Soup Copyright: DW/Ulrike Schleicher Tel Aviv
An African refugee looks for support at Levinsky SoupImage: DW/U. Schleicher

Long lines for food

Every evening, Shtayim and his fellow campaigners provide refugees with a warm meal: a bowl of soup. "The food is donated by two restaurants," he said. There are already some 50 men in line in front of the booth before the plates, cutlery and beverages are set out.

"At the beginning, we sometimes had over 800 refugees a day standing in line, now it's dropped to about 150." Now only a small number of refugees, who are mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, are fed here.

According to Israel's immigration office, there are some 60,000 refugees in the country. Most of them already entered the country a decade ago and have meanwhile established themselves despite their predominantly illegal status. In the last three years, the number of incoming arrivals has increased to some 2,000 people per month.

Threat to Israel's existence?

The government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resolved to take action due to public sentiment for one, which has turned increasingly against the immigrants. But pragmatic reasons also play a role: there is simply not so much space in Israel. Netanyahu told a cabinet meeting last May that the "phenomenon of illegal infiltrators" from Africa was extremely serious and threatening the security and identity of the Jewish state.

A refugee tent in Levinsky Park. Copyright: DW/Ulrike Schleicher Tel Aviv
A look inside one of the two refugee tents in Levinsky ParkImage: DW/U. Schleicher

"If we don't stop their entry, the problem that currently stands at 60,000 could grow to 600,000, and that threatens our existence as a Jewish and democratic state," Netanyahu said.

Since the legislation, passed in January 2012, took effect, the number of immigrants has sunk rapidly. According to government figures, while 2,295 people crossed the border illegally in January 2012, only 36 got across in December. There are several reasons for this development. Last year, there were growing numbers of protests in Tel Aviv against illegal immigrants following a rape allegedly committed by a refugee from Eritrea. In May 2012, the tensions turned violent, with demonstrators smashing African shops and property, chanting "Blacks out!"

Parliamentarian Miri Regev from the right-wing Likud Party last year called Sudanese refugees "a cancer in our body" - though she later said her words had been misconstrued. But the claims that Israel was being flooded by refugees from Eritrea and Sudan came from all sides. There were calls to put an end to it and these sentiments did deter a number of potential refugees.

Questionable deportation practices

One major move on the part of the government was constructing a new fence along the border to Egypt. Many refugees from Sudan had crossed into Israel across this border. In addition, authorities have begun systematically pressuring "infiltrators," as they have been officially called, to leave the country.

Celebrations for one year of Levinsky Soup. Copyright: DW/Ulrike Schleicher Tel Aviv
Levinsky Soup celebrates its one-year anniversaryImage: DW/U. Schleicher

Last summer, the so-called Prevention of Infiltration Law took effect, which punishes asylum seekers for irregularly crossing into Israel. New arrivals and their children can be imprisoned for three years or more while officials determine whether they meet the criteria for refugee status - and this even through Israel is a signatory party to the UN Refugee Convention. It stipulates that no signatory state may expel or return a refugee "in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion."

In February, advocacy groups made it known that Israel had quietly repatriated hundreds of South Sudanese immigrants in recent months via third-party states, claiming the departures had been voluntary. Israel claimed that South Sudan's independence made it safe for the refugees to return, but advocacy groups report that back home, they have to fear for their lives.

Rice can make you wealthy

To add to the problems, the authorities have moved refugees out of detention centers into the Tel Aviv neighborhood Hatikva, where Shtayim's Levinsky Soup is active. Once they've arrived, the immigrants are left to their own devices. They receive no accommodation, no food, no medical aid or money - and are not allowed to work. Applications for asylum are useless. The authorities usually do not even accept them for processing. This is why Shtayim and his fellow campaigners see the need for their initiative.

"We're just Israeli citizens that care and we don't do this for any sort of personal advantage." Donations are not possible, as the initiative does not have a bank account. "It's better to buy a few kilos of rice," he said. "Invest 50 Shekel (10 euros) and you can feed quite a number of people. That is wealth."