30,000 African migrants protest in Israel

By The Citizen

TEL AVIV (AFP) - More than 30,000 African asylum seekers who entered Israel illegally protested in Tel Aviv on Sunday, police said, in the biggest rally ever staged by migrants in the Jewish state.

'More than 30,000 demonstrators marched peacefully in Tel Aviv,' police spokeswoman Lubra Samri told AFP.

Gathered in the coastal city's central Rabin Square, the protesters sharply criticised Israel's refusal to give them refugee status and the detention without trial of hundreds of asylum seekers.

'We are all refugees' and 'Yes to freedom, no to prison!' they chanted in English, with Israeli rights activists also joining the march.

Ultra-Orthodox MP Eli Yishai, the hardline former interior minister who in 2012 led the government campaign to round up and deport tens of thousands of illegal migrants, denounced the protest.

Yishai said that the 'infiltrators', as authorities call them, were encouraged by 'anti-Zionist human rights organisations'.

Rights groups say most African migrants in Israel cannot be deported because their lives would be under threat if they returned to their homes in Sudan and Eritrea.

Yishai told the website of Maariv daily that Tel Aviv, where many of the migrants live, 'long ago became an African city'.

He said the demonstration was 'a sharp and clear cry for the state of Israel and judicial and law enforcement authorities to apply all the means at their disposal to return the infiltrators to their countries'.

Dawud, an Eritrean asylum-seeker at the protest, told AFP: 'We have fled persecution, dictatorships, civil wars and genocides.

'Instead of considering us refugees, Israel treats us like criminals,' he added, without giving his full name.

Dawud said the demonstrators intended to head for the UN refugee agency's Tel Aviv office and foreign embassies in the city in further rallies on Monday.

Many illegal immigrants, who are often employed in menial jobs in restaurants and hotels, also launched a three-day strike in several Israeli cities on Sunday.