REPORTING FROM TEL AVIV, Israel — The demonstrations have been ongoing here, with the most recent one occurring just Wednesday on the streets of Tel Aviv. Thousands of immigrants from East Africa have been protesting the fact that they have not been labeled by the Israeli government as refugees, a status that would enable them to get government benefits and to remain in the country legally.
“We are refugees. We need protection,” they chanted during a demonstration here, in a scene that has become highly common in recent weeks here. They have protested here as at the nation’s parliament, the Knesset, in recent weeks.
Many East Africans here, largely from Eritrea and Sudan, have complained that they are looked at unsympathetically by the Israeli government and that they have left their countries largely because of threats and mistreatment. They contend that they should be collectively considered to be refugees by the Israeli government.
“There is a complete denial from the government of what our problems are here,” said one East African university student here, speaking with BET.com.
“I think it stems from the fact that many people here look at us as people who commit crimes and create problems here,” the student said, asking to remain anonymous to not risk any reprisal. “But they are generalizing all of us and don’t accept that we are refugees like any other people seeking that status.”
Large waves of immigrants came to this country around 2009 from Eritrea and South Sudan as unrest became more common and citizens looked for better opportunities to make a living. The government said that many of those who come have moved here illegally, having crossed the border without visas. In some cases these immigrants are held in detention centers, where they can remain for up to a year.
The government said that determining refugee status is a painstaking undertaking that must be done on an individual, rather than collective basis.
“All immigrants here have the ability to apply for refugee status and their applications are reviewed in conjunction with the United Nations Commission for Refugees,” said Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told BET.com.
The presence of large numbers of newcomers from Sudan and Eritrea is relatively new in this country, he said, and the government is still coming to grips with providing staff to help with the process of determining the status of the thousands of immigrants.
“Since it’s determined on an individual basis, it does take a lot of time because we don’t have the manpower to process these applications quickly,” Palmor said. “We’re certainly doing what we can. But it’s not easy.”
Wednesday’s demonstration had more than 1,000 East African immigrants – most of them women – walking through the streets. They complained that their husbands and family members had been detained at a government center in the southern region of Israel, far from Tel Aviv, which is where most East African immigrants reside in Israel.
“We feel the government is being unfair,” one protester said as she pushed a stroller with her baby inside. “We just want the same rights as other refugees. We think it’s the only fair thing to do.”
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