Israel: Modern Day Exodus, on African Refugees and their Right for Medical Care

by Gilad Lotan

Around 6,000 African refugees escaped the horrors in their countries, and seek refuge in Israel. Many of them live in harsh conditions and can be spotted shivering cold on the streets of southern Tel-Aviv. Earlier this month, the Physicians for Human Rights clinic was forced to shut down, leaving many with no access to healthcare. The insensitive behavior from the side of the Israeli government comes only tens of years after the holocaust, when Jews came to the same plot of land, seeking refuge from the horrors of Europe.

An active internet campaign has been stirring the Hebrew blogosphere, aiming to raising public awareness for the African refugee’s basic rights for healthcare among other basic services in Israel. They call for the government to allocate immediate funding for a medical clinic run by the Physicians for Human Rights association, which was forced to shut down earlier this month. The clinic provided foreign workers and refugees with free healthcare services, but ever since the surge in numbers of African refugees seeking medical care, the clinic could no longer bear the heavy burden. It shut its doors in hope that the Ministry of Health and the Israeli government would be forced to publicly recognize the refugees basic right for healthcare.

Internet Campaign

Over 95 bloggers have already joined the campaign advocating for refugee healthcare, requesting the Ministry of Health and Israeli government to take responsibility. Bloggers have been writing about the topic, sending letters to political delegates, raising public awareness, expressing public solidarity and joining forces with the goal of influencing. The list of bloggers and links to their articles can be found in Shuki Galili’s post. In addition, a Facebook group has been created, aimed at raising public awareness.

Shooky (Hebrew) has been organizing Israeli bloggers and encouraging them to express their opinions and and send letters to the government. He writes:

A defining characteristic of the time and place we are living in is people’s disbelief in the possibility of change; that they can make a difference. The purpose of expressing your opinion is not only for reasons of change. There are cases when taking a stance is a moral duty!
Ten days ago the refugee clinic in Tel-Aviv closed down. The Physicians for Human Rights association who operated the clinic is demanding from the State of Israel to recognize this problem, and provide refugees (and foreign workers) with healthcare treatments…
In order to keep this topic on the agenda, I asked a group of selected bloggers to write a few words and express an opinion. I am asking every blogger who reads this post to act in the same manner. Even if you do not think you will have an effect, even if you think you have nothing to say, add your opinion.
And ask others to do the same.

Bloggers are encouraged to use the image below. Its text translates to: ‘diseases do not discriminate between humans’… *doctors statement: refugees are humans too!’

Elishva Milikovsky writes in the Israeli political blog, Black Labor:

Physicians for Human Rights, one of the most amazing organizations in Israel, opened a clinic in Tel-Aviv ten years ago. The clinic began its operations after one of the volunteer doctors met a working immigrant who suffered from a simple injury which developed into a serious infection, as it was not treated in time. The immigrant later died from this infection.

The PHR clinic offered services to any person in Israel who did not have health insurance, but throughout its time of service, the clinic made it clear that it did not have the financial means to provide medical support for every uninsured person. The organization’s goal was to point to the fact that there exists a population in Israel under serious threat because of lack of medical insurance, and to fight for people’s right and entitlement to healthcare services…

Muhammad, a Sudanese refugee in his 20s, suffers from a brain tumor. It is not cancerous, but its position in the brain makes it impossible for him to control his swallowing muscles – thus he cannot eat. His situation is becoming more and more critical. He drastically lost weight in the past weeks. An operation will cost tens of thousands of NIS, which of course, he does not have. If he had health insurance he could have already been healthy. But since he does not, he may die soon.

The Ministry of Finance stated that allocation of a budget for the refugees will have to wait until 2009. But these people’s health cannot wait until then! We must not forget that the right for healthcare – is actually the right to life.

Arguments

The arguments against providing refugees with medical care are diverse. One claims that the State should make the refugee’s lives difficult in order to signal others not to come. Another common voice calls for the use of the word “infiltrators” instead of “refugees”, portraying their lack of rights. This way, those asking for help are turned into criminals, making it is easier to for the State to withdraw its responsibility, as it is responsible for refugees but not infiltrators. The decision makers did not take into account that the refugees never had the possibility to enter Israel legally. For obvious reasons, they had no choice but to “infiltrate” into a secure country while seeking protection.

Following the closure of PHR Israel’s Open Clinic, Health Minister Yacov Ben Yizri asked the Director General of the Prime Minister’s Bureau Ra’anan Dinur for an immediate of a NIS seven million budget, designated for treating Africans who have infiltrated Israel illegally, many of whom suffer from contagious and chronic diseases. The purpose of the requested budget is to treat African infiltrators and refugees, vaccinate them, test them for HIV and AIDS, hospitalize those suffering from tuberculosis, hepatitis and cancer and to deliver babies. The Health Ministry estimates that among the infiltrators currently in Israel, some 100 of them suffer from AIDS, and dozens have cancer.

Personal Accounts

city blond describes a personal account and connection to a group of these refugees. She begins her post with a moving email that her mother had received three weeks beforehand. It was a personal email from a friend, describing the dire refugee situation in her neighborhood in central Tel-Aviv:

I want to confess. Like everyone else, I had heard about this topic, the refugees from Darfur and its neighbors in Africa. I acknowledge that I heard it on the radio, read every piece of text in the papers and saw it all on television. And yes, I shifted uncomfortably on my couch, but thought to myself that Africa is far away (even when it lives in moldy cellars in the south side of the city near the central station). And… I continued onwards. Even though I am usually one who cares, am active and volunteer in various places. But c’mon, how much can we handle?

It all changed last week.

A few days ago, someone spilled (literally!) one hundred Africans from buses (from Eritrea and the Ivory Coast) into my street and disappeared. They were all led to an old, unutilized building down the street. The middle of Tel-Aviv, 2008, center of hip Tel-Aviv culture, and one hundred young African refugees aged 18 to 45 are there, when all they have are ragged clothing and the good-heartedness of the neighbors. They have nothing! They have no food, no water, no blankets. They sleep on the floor. No clothes. Nothing!!

It took us several days to realize that they were simply abandoned and that nobody was taking care of them. It took us three days to understand. Three days they did not eat!! And they, with their charming politeness and venerated behavior, sat quietly, and looked at all the passers-by in the street.

Ever since then, we are doing everything we can to help them. Neighbors bringing food and picking up clothes. But for the long-run, it is difficult to feed one hundred people every day. I thought that a hungry refugee’s eyes is something my mother left in Europe 60 years ago. But I found this right in front of my eyes, literally in my house; and I cannot take it.

I cannot sleep in a comfortable bed and eat my daily breakfast when 50 meters away, one hundred people are hungry and shivering.

The Hebrew blogger continues to describe how this letter touched her and led her to volunteer with this group of refugees. She tells of a personal connection formed with an Eritrean refugee who was caught in a bureaucratic mess while trying to receive his temporary work permit. She contemplates the hardships of getting close and personally involved:

I am concerned about this. I try to shake this feeling, it has no use. I need to believe that this situation will resolve quickly. My spontaneous volunteering which started unplanned after that email, turned into a deep personal involvement that caught me completely by surprise. I have no doubt that I am lucky for having this chance to help. I am sure that in the future I will be thankful for every moment that I spent with the wonderful refugees and the fantastic volunteers whom I met in the park. I am certain that my acquaintance with Moses will last many years, and I am hopeful that he will live here happily and securely – at least until the situation in Eritrea will change and he could go back without facing prison or death.

But at this moment I am worried. Concerned what will happen if he will not receive his work permit.

And yes, there is the annoying little voice in my head, saying “why did you need all this? Why did you take this matter so personally? Was it not better to leave the help on a general refugee group level? Such that would end when they were taken from the park? Why do I need this hurtful worry towards a specific person?

I could not avoid it. It’s easier to stay distanced, to help, give, volunteer, but without being sucked into personal acquaintance…

I am staying away from all the dumb arguments on ‘why we need them here’, and ‘we have enough problems of our own’ and ‘they are not refugees but illegal immigrants’, and other offensive comments I read. The UN recognizes them as refugees. They are running away from a harsh daily reality of political persecution, torture, imprisonment and death. And above it all, fact is they are here. In the meanwhile, our country is not banishing them. We cannot be indifferent to the hunger and repulsive living conditions in the central station. They are humans, in distress. They are here right in front of our eyes.

How can we ignore all this?

Another personal perspective is shared here:

A Sudanese refugee has recently started working in my company… Michael. A great guy, whom one of my work colleagues picked up hitch-hiking in Tel Aviv. After their conversation, he decided to help find Michael a job in our company… Great guy, smiling and laughing constantly. Even through all that he has gone through, and the fact that he is here alone. In my department, we decided to adopt him and care for anything he might need. He has already picked up words in Hebrew and can read bits here and there. If those opposing the support for Darfur refugees would meet Michael, they would quickly understand that it is not an “enemy of the State” that we’re dealing with. I wish there were more people like him in this country.

Video on the refugee situation in Tel Aviv.

Anyone who can help is asked to get in touch through the following email – laplitim@gmail.com

The following materials would be happily accepted: mattresses, blankets, towels, games, toys, pampers, cooking utensils and food – rice, pasta, any canned foods.

Additional GVO article on African refugees in Israel – Israel-Sudanese Refugees: Like Darfur, as Auschwitz