By Riva Gold
“The issue of refugees is not foreign to us; not to Jews, and not to the State of Israel,” says award-winning filmmaker Shai Carmeli-Polak. Shai’s documentary, “Ha'plitim,” (The refugees) seeks to expose the moral and legal questions underlying refugee status in Israel.
The film follows African asylum-seekers as they cross the Egypt-Israel border to escape life-threatening conditions, and won the Bronze Olive Award at the Montenegro International TV Festival in 2009. Shai captures their arrival and detention in Israel, interspersed with scenes of parliamentary debates surrounding Israel's policies on refugees.
The film's release started with a few 2009 screenings in other countries, but is now on a tour across Israel, accompanied by talks from Carmeli-Polak. The film recently had a screening party in its honor at the African Refugee Development Center in Tel Aviv.
While Israel is party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the government has not yet adopted asylum legislation. An approximate 17,000 asylum-seekers have fled to Israel from Sudan, Eritrea, Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Ivory Coast. Many have been detained in prison camps and over 270 have been returned to Egypt.
“It’s a humanitarian crisis,” says Carmeli-Polak, who became an activist for the refugee community in 2007. “People are arriving from war-torn countries, and the government wants to just give them food and send them back.”
“We came because we were suffering, and the government put us in prison,” says Taj, who fled to Israel from Darfur in 2008. “We thought a democratic Israel would give us rights, but for many of us, it’s not so different here from Darfur.”
The film includes several speeches by government officials endorsing restrictive legislation, labeling the thousands of Christian and Muslim African refugees who’ve arrived since 2007 as “infiltrators.”
Activists argue that as a nation of refugees, Israel has a special responsibility to be humane to asylum-seekers. “We’re almost brainwashed as Israelis,” Carmeli-Polak explains. “In school, we’re constantly reminded of how cruel the world was to Jewish refugees in the past- how we were turned away from so many countries. Then it happens here, and people come in need of help, and suddenly we’re only here for Jewish people.”
Jean-Michel, film subject and co-founder of the ARDC in south Tel-Aviv, says the film has brought more awareness into Israeli society.
“No one even knew about most African refugees until 2007, when it became a job issue. Since Shai’s campaign, we’ve seen people searching to do something.”
Jean-Michel fled to Israel from the Congo in January 2000. His non-profit center seeks to assist African refugees and asylum seekers in Israel and to promote a humane and fair Israeli asylum policy. “It’s still difficult to do anything,” he explains. “The task ahead is not just to help us provide food and shelter, but to educate Israelis and eradicate racism.”
Jean-Michel explains that there is a lot of confusion between migrant workers and refugees. “What we are asking for is a clear and real process for checking who is and is not a refugee,” he says.
Although Jean-Michel has a university degree, he cleans houses to support his wife and three children in Israel. Ten years after arriving in Israel, his legal status is still under review.
Taj says that the lack of employment and educational opportunities afforded to refugees exacerbates the problem.
“Yes, we’ve seen some progress, but do we get any education here so we can someday go back and help?” He says that most Darfurians are now working here in manual labor. “When I go back, what can I contribute? If we do not help prepare refugees for the future, people will continue to flee to Israel.”
“Of course Israel can’t solve the problems in Africa,” Shai concludes. “But we can try to steer it in a much more moral direction.”