JERUSALEM — In Israel, several thousand African migrants demonstrated Wednesday for a fourth day against a new law that allows authorities to detain indefinitely those without valid visas. The migrants say they are political refugees -- but the government insists they are economic migrants.
The Migrants chanted that they are not criminals but rather refugees, as they gathered in front of the protested the Israeli Knesset.
The asylum seekers, who are mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, say Israel makes it difficult to obtain or renew their visas and rarely grants asylum. But the government considers them to be infiltrators looking for work and wants them to leave.
“I’m a refugee. I’m from a tough region where a genocide happened. So I’m looking for protection, not for more fear because I live in fear, but to fix all the laws which were passed and treat us as human beings,” explained Adam Ahmed who came to Israel from Darfur five years ago.
According to the government, more than 50,000 Africans have entered Israel in the past seven years. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that the influx had virtually stopped since the completion last year of a five-meter-high fence along the border with Egypt.
“I want to make clear that demonstrations won't help them and strikes won't help," Netanyahu said. "Just as we managed to stop completely the illegal infiltration of our borders so we are also determined to remove from here those who succeeded in entering before we closed the border.”
Rights workers counter that claim, noting that the migrants take low-paying jobs that Israelis don’t want. But Israelis in some neighborhoods complain they have brought crime and fear.
The director of the Israel Project advocacy group, Marcus Sheff, said Israel is a small nation that cannot absorb such an influx. But he said the government should approach the problem humanely.
“These issues are all over the world," noted Sheff. "They’re very, very complicated indeed and sorting out the difference between those people who genuinely need political asylum and illegal economic immigrants is something governments are struggling with.”
The demonstrators vow to continue their protests and are threatening hunger strikes to further press their demands.