By Harrison Lanigan-Coyte
The African refugee community in Israel is turning to the power of football to help them in their fight for freedom and justice.
Football has always been a powerful tool for uniting people and helping them to transcend their cultural and political differences. Its universal appeal has turned the sport into a vehicle for challenging unacceptable social norms and injustices while also providing a platform for the promotion of human rights and justice. Now as hundreds of African refugees living in Israel begin to be coerced into “voluntary repatriation” through forced detention in Israel’s Holot prison, it is football they are increasingly turning to as a new source of strength and symbol of defiance.
Over the last seven years more than 50,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees have arrived in Israel in search of safety, freedom from persecution and a better life. They have asked for very little from the Israeli state, other than to have their rights as refugees recognised and respected. Since they began arriving, African refugees have arguably contributed positively to the Israeli economy, providing a cheap labour force that has been utilised by industry, on building sites and in local restaurants. They have also positively contributed to the cultural fabric of Israeli society. The vibrancy and the hustle and bustle of Levinski market, with its hundreds of restaurants, bars and market stalls churning out tasty cuisine and great music day and night, are a clear testament to this. Yet, despite the positive contribution that African refugees in Israel have made, they remain victims of intense racism and discrimination. Members of Israel’s far-right have continually advocated for the forced removal of all refugees living in Israel, describing them as a “cancer” which needs to be purged from Israeli society. Ahmed El Nour, a refugee from Sudan currently living in Tel Aviv, recalls such incidents, stating that “when I lived in Eilat I was often sworn at and told that I was not allowed to sit on the bus as it was reserved for Israelis. I was also often told to go home and that I was not welcome here”. Sadly this rhetoric has been largely supported and even encouraged by the Israeli government, which regularly refers to all refugees as “infiltrators”, implying that those entering Israel pose a direct threat to national security. Such language has only sought to further fuel the xenophobic paranoia of far-right groups and as a result refugees have often found themselves subject to extreme acts of violence such as gang beatings and stabbings. The most serious and shocking example of this was the recent case of Kako, a two year old Eritrean child, who was stabbed in the head while being carried on her mother’s back in the central Tel Aviv bus park. While police have claimed the attack was not racially motivated, such incidents raise serious concerns about the safety of African refugees living in the face of such intense racial discrimination and state apathy.
Despite the horror of such acts, the most damaging and brutal violence, however, is not that of far-right groups on the streets of Tel Aviv but rather that of the Israeli government and its draconian policies. Since refugees began arriving in 2007, the state has continued to deny them their rights as outlined in the 1951 UN convention on the rights of refugees. It has refused to review their applications for asylum and at present only a handful of people have been granted refugee status. Instead, the government has decided to pursue a policy of forced detention designed to intimidate refugees to “voluntarily” return to their countries of origin, even though this would place them in direct danger. This policy came into effect in December 2013, when the Israeli government passed Amendment 4 to the Anti-Infiltration Law, thereby inaugurating the “open” detention facility for African asylum seekers in the Negev desert, otherwise known as Holot. Since it opened, refugees residing in Tel Aviv and other cities throughout Israel have begun receiving subpoenas to this facility, requiring them to pack up their belongings, leave their jobs and say goodbye to their loved ones in exchange for “voluntary” incarceration.
While Holot is described by Israeli media and the state as an “open facility”, it is anything but open. It is placed in a military firing zone deep in the desert, isolated from civilization, fenced-in, and operated by the Israeli prison services. Refugees living in the facility are required to report for roll-call three times a day and failure to do so results in them being sent to the nearby closed prison facility of Sahronim. There are currently about 500 African refugees detained in Holot detention centre with the number expected to rise to 3,300 (capacity) by the end of the month. Conditions and facilities are both extremely basic. There is no hot water; rooms are poorly insulated leaving those living there largely at the mercy of harsh weather conditions. In addition to this, food provided is basic and reportedly tasteless and the centre lacks adequate sports and recreational facilities, resulting in a lack of stimulating activities for inmates to engage in. Through the creation of Holot, Israeli authorities had hoped that large numbers of refugees would “voluntarily” choose to leave Israel in favour of taking their chances with authorities in their own countries. Those who decide to leave are given an envelope containing $3500. With this Israel effectively washes its hands of the problem and attempts to buy itself a clean conscience. In reality, however, encouraging voluntary repatriation places those who return in direct risk of persecution and reprisals on arrival in their homeland. It is this which represents the true brutality of Israeli state policy. For the most part this has not happened and refugees have been refusing to voluntarily return to their countries of origin. Despite attempts to intimidate them, African refugees living in Holot and throughout Israel have remained resolute in the fight for freedom. Over the past two months they have held dozens of peaceful protests, marches, diplomatic meetings, press conferences and community empowerment trainings geared towards raising awareness of the plight of refugees living in Israel among the Israeli public. They have achieved all of this while remaining utterly committed to nonviolence and respectful to the Israeli public.
As part of this proactive spirit of defiance the refugee community is now seeking to establish a football league within Holot detention centre to help motivate and maintain morale among inmates. Having fled genocide in Darfur and forced conscription in Eritrea, many people living in Holot already suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and with no judicial review in sight there is real potential for sprits to drop. It is hoped that football and the creation of a league in Holot will provide those incarcerated with a means through which to reassert themselves and stave off the monotony of wrongful imprisonment. More importantly, however, it is hoped that the creation of a football league will provide inmates with a sense of empowerment that will help them to steady the course in their continuing struggle for freedom and justice. As stated by Mohamed Salih, a refugee from Sudan who envisioned the league, “the project aims to support people in Holot to engage in activities and sports for themselves, to encourage them to wait until they get more information about what is happening in Israel and to discourage people from returning to their home countries where they will be in danger. Now is not the time to go home.” The project aims to reconnect detainees in Holot with the wider refugee community by incorporating other refugee teams from across Israel into the league, which will be centered in Holot. Refugee Teams from Arad, Ashdod and Tel Aviv have expressed a keen interest in the project and are excited by the prospect of helping their friends in the center. As someone who has been working with the African refugee community for the past few months I am also extremely excited by this project as I know it will make an extremely positive impact to the lives of those in Holot.