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African migrants protest, push for asylum in Israel

 Tens of thousands of African migrants take part in a rally on January 5 in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Story highlights

  • African migrants call for a labor strike in Tel Aviv
  • They ask Israel's government to grant them asylum
  • The government offers the migrants cash incentives to return home
  • Officials call them illegal migrants and blame them for an increase in crime

Thousands of African migrants cram into Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, Israel, calling for a labor strike.

Their chants fill the air, summing up their message: "We need asylum."

Activists estimate more than 50,000 migrants work illegally in low-paying jobs in Israel.

Many are fleeing persecution from war-torn areas like Sudan and Eritrea. The threat to their lives pushes them to undertake the dangerous journey via smugglers' routes to Israel. A vast majority cross the Sinai Peninsula, known for being a hotbed of kidnapping and organ harvesting.

Once across the border in Israel, they try to claim asylum.

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"All of us are fleeing genocide, fleeing dictatorship regimes. Looking for protection," says the African Refugee Development Center's Mutasim Ali, who came to Israel from Darfur. "(A migrant) doesn't care where he gets it. We know it's too difficult to cross the border making our way to Israel, but that's the only option at the time."

The asylum seekers complain that the Israeli government isn't viewing their goal as legitimate, but rather sees them as migrant workers.

"The Israeli government leaves them in limbo from one side. The Israeli government calls them infiltrators, that they came here for work and that they are all criminals," says Orit Marom of ASSAF, Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers. "On the other side, they never check their asylum requests."

The Israeli government refers to the asylum seekers as illegal migrants who are in the country to work.

They blame them for an increase in crime and say they threaten Israel's internal security. The government says it is increasing the number of security personnel to combat the crime.

They are also giving refugee seekers willing to voluntarily return to their home countries a cash incentive of $3,500. But if that doesn't work, then the government says they'll deport them.

"We are determined to deport the tens of thousands of illegal migrants who are here after having reduced the number of illegal labor migrants who enter Israel's cities," said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last November during his weekly Cabinet meeting. "The steps that we unanimously approved today are proportionate and necessary for maintaining the Jewish and democratic character of the state and will restore security to Israel's citizens while upholding the directives of the High Court of Justice and international law."

Basow Ibrahim gave up being a rebel in Sudan's Nuba Mountains over a year ago. While fighting the Khartoum government, he said, he realized there was more to life.

"I'm here because I want to protect myself. I want to save my life," Ibrahim said. "I want to finish my education."

Ibrahim's story is similar to that of many refugee seekers.

They say they plan to return home to their families and friends once the threat to their lives is gone.

Until that day comes, they say they hope Israel will keep them safe by granting them asylum.