By Vered Lee
People seeking asylum in Israel endure trauma at home and harrowing journeys - only to confront mountains of Interior Ministry red tape. In addition, the areas in which they can reside are limited, and many are denied vital psychological help
Two hours later, there was no sign of what had taken place. The park in the Shapira neighborhood of southern Tel Aviv was again teeming with life. Foreign workers gradually arrived, filling the place up, children came to play and only a green garbage bin located at the foot of a tree in a corner of the park remained as evidence that a short while earlier, at 3:30 P.M., someone's life had come to an end.
Abrehale Misghina, a 28-year-old refugee from Eritrea, dragged the bin to the tree, climbed on top of it, placed a noose around his neck, threw the other end of the rope over one of the branches, and committed suicide.
Said Mor Ribner, 14, who witnessed the event: "He walked back and forth restlessly, and seemed confused. He came over and made a gesture, asking 'What time is it?' I pulled out my cell phone and he grabbed it. I yelled at him. He tried to make a call and failed, and in the end returned my phone. Then he sat on a bench and started to cry. Suddenly he ran, dragged the can, climbed the tree and hanged himself."
Misghina is not the first refugee to commit suicide in Israel. A refugee from Darfur killed himself during Passover, and four months ago, one from southern Sudan tried to commit suicide, but his life was saved. Many refugees who live in Israel suffer from mental distress caused by the trauma experienced in their countries of origin, the hardships they encountered on the way here and their harsh current living conditions. The psychological assistance they receive, if any, is minimal.
Local and government authorities usually ignore the mental distress of refugees, while the welfare organizations focus on their existential needs and lack sufficient resources to provide full-blown treatment. According to Elisheva Milikowski, one of the founders of the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel, an organization that provides humanitarian and psychosocial assistance, "We try to support and escort refugees coping with trauma, with the difficulty of adapting to the realities in Israel, as well as to the hopeless situation in which they find themselves here, with no ability to work. However, the organization has limited resources, a limited staff made up mostly of volunteers, and clearly it is difficult for us to reach all of the refugees."
The Physicians for Human Rights organization runs a clinic that offers psychiatric treatment, provided by eight volunteer therapists. Ran Cohen, who heads the organization's Migrant Workers, Refugees and Asylum Seekers Project, explains that, "public frameworks ought to take care of the refugees and asylum seekers, but what is on offer today reflects a total disregard of their situation. Despite the fact that Israel has gained a lot of experience in handling trauma and victims of Nazi persecution since the establishment of the state, it still does not provide proper psychological treatment for the refugees and for the asylum seekers. That worsens their condition, on top of their poor economic situation and the policy that restricts their movements geographically."
In November 2008, the Ministry of Health and the Israel Medical Association opened a clinic at the new central bus station in Tel Aviv. It was presented as a clinic for refugees, but provides medical aid, not psychological assistance. The Health Ministry says that, "refugees and asylum seekers do not receive psychological treatment because there is no [separate] clinic for every segment of the population. Nevertheless, the Health Ministry's directives provide that, in emergency situations, every person will receive medical help including psychological treatment."
Some 17,000 African asylum seekers live in this country today; 7,000 from Eritrea, 5,500 from Sudan and the remainder from the Ivory Coast. The State Comptroller's 2008 report criticized the amount of time it has taken to process the thousands of refugees who have crossed the Sinai border since 2005. The report shows that most wait six months just to discover that their requests for political asylum have been denied.
Handling appeals that are not rejected at the outset takes almost three years. During that time the asylum seekers are not entitled to basic health or welfare services under the same conditions as they are provided to Israelis. Official UN recognition as refugees grants them the status of temporary residency in Israel, but that is given only sparingly and the numbers are declining. In 2005, 909 requests for asylum were filed and 11 were approved; in 2006, it was six of 1,348 asylum seekers; and during the first nine months of 2007, only three out of 3,000.
By late 2007, the Interior Ministry had issued work permits to 2,000 Eritrean asylum seekers, allowing them to work, legally, anywhere in country. However, that permit did not grant them access to medical services. Those who arrived after 2007 were issued a "conditional release" paper, which allowed them to stay here legally - but only in areas north of Hadera and south of Gedera, not including Eilat. This document, called the "Gedera-Hadera visa," is the product of a policy set by Yaakov Ganot, head of the Interior Ministry's Population Administration. It is designed to spread the refugees around and to prevent them from settling in large groups in central areas, especially Tel Aviv.
Yohannes Limma Bayu, an Ethiopian refugee who came to Israel 12 years ago, knew Misghina. He says the Eritrean "had no work permit, just a 'conditional release.' He had no steady job for three to four months, borrowed money from friends and slept in acquaintances' apartments because he did not have enough money to rent a place of his own. On several nights he was seen sleeping in the park."
With some friends, Limma Bayu has established the African Refugee Development Center, which runs two refugee shelters in southern Tel Aviv. He fears that "there will be more suicides. The Interior Ministry's and the immigration authorities' policy toward the refugees is worsening and everybody says, clearly, 'We do not want refugees here.' These are asylum seekers that the state chooses to consider as foreign workers while ignoring the rights they deserve according to international treaties - so what do they expect?
"Are people who fled here from Eritrea's military regime or from the genocide in Darfur expected to move about hungry, without a roof over their heads, and not feel depressed and harm themselves?" Limma Bayu says. "People are desperate and say: 'It's better to die.' These are people who fled from bullets in their countries of origin and at the border between Egypt and Israel, and in the end what? It is the life in Israel, a democratic state, that breaks them. This policy is similar to apartheid in disguise."
'Fend for themselves'
Anis, a young woman from Eritrea who asked not to be fully identified for fear of the authorities, says that, "Misghina was a loner and an introvert who did not talk about anything and did not share. In the last few months he was very depressed. He owed money to members of the community and found it difficult to make a living. But I did not expect him to do something like this."
"His action reflects the entire community's mental state," adds Salomon, one of the community's leaders, who is also afraid to give his full name. "Many refugees are in a state of frustration and anxiety. All of them are totally engrossed in their problems; they fear the police will catch them, and are hungry and anxious. The refugees do not know Hebrew or English and only in Tel Aviv do they have a supportive community - so only a few of those who try their luck away from central Israel manage to get along."
Officials at the welfare organizations also say that many refugees live in a state of emotional distress. "After the tragedy they have endured in their countries of origin, and after the long trek they have undertaken, they are left to fend for themselves," says Milikowski. "We hear of a lot of despair, depression, fear of the police and anxiety. This suicide should serve as a signal to the authorities that it is about time they treat the refugees with more compassion."
Sigal Rozen of the Hotline for Migrant Workers points an accusing finger at the Interior Ministry's policy that restricts the areas in which refugees can reside. She says employers in the north and south complain that ministry officials threaten to fine them if they employ refugees. So on the one hand, the ministry tries to get the refugees out of the Tel Aviv area and spread them throughout the country, but on the other hand it uses sophisticated clandestine means to block their ability to work in certain places.
Milikowski doubts the refugees can survive outside of Tel Aviv. "We have made many attempts to organize them into groups and try and find housing and jobs for them in Haifa and other towns, but the difficulties are tremendous. In some cities landlords do not want to lease apartments because the refugees do not have the financial ability to provide guarantees. They are treated with more caution. In the vicinity of Tel Aviv's central bus station, [landlords] have gotten used to leasing [apartments] to refugees.
"We have noticed that the permits the Interior Ministry issues deter employers," Milikowski continues. "When you drop such a load on an individual refugee, he breaks easily. They do not speak the language and do not understand the culture. The state's policy places the refugees in a situation without any horizon or future."
The Interior Ministry's response: "We are sorry about the incident [Misghina's death]. It must be made clear [the people in question] are not refugees, but people who stay in the country without legal permission or hold temporary work permits ...
"It is not the ministry's job to find housing, education or work for people who are in Israel illegally, or who have work permits. Nevertheless, impossible situations have arisen in which thousands of people who are here illegally as well as holders of temporary work permits, have concentrated in certain cities (Tel Aviv and Eilat), with no possibility of making a reasonable living, with no work places and no reasonable conditions for existence. Hence, it was decided to find solutions outside of these areas, in places where there is a larger demand for workers.
"The directive that allows refugees to work only south of Gedera and north of Hadera proves itself. An attempt to link the sad event and the directive belies the truth and constitutes recklessness of the first degree."