Several thousand African asylum seekers who entered Israel illegally through Egypt staged a protest in Tel Aviv on Sunday, denouncing the Jewish state's steps to protect itself in the light of mass infiltration.
Demonstrators sharply criticized the authorities' refusal to give them refugee status and the detention of several hundred asylum seekers, AFP reports.
"We are all refugees" and "yes to freedom, no to prison!" they chanted in English, with Israeli rights activists also joining the march.
"We have fled persecution, dictatorships, civil wars and genocides," Dawud, an Eritrean asylum-seeker at the protest, told AFP. "The Israeli government must study our requests for asylum and treat us like human beings," he added. Dawud declined to give his full name.
"Instead of considering us refugees, Israel treats us like criminals," Dawud claimed.He added that the demonstrators intended to head for the UN refugee agency's (UNHCR) Tel Aviv office and foreign embassies in the coastal city.
Many illegal immigrants, who are often employed in menial jobs in restaurants and hotels, also began a three-day strike in several Israeli cities.
Under legislation passed on December 10, illegal immigrants entering Israel can be held for up to a year without trial. It was the latest in a series of measures aimed at cracking down on the numbers of African migrants entering the country illegally, which Israel says poses both a security and demographic threat.
The new law amends earlier legislation which allowed for immigrants to be held for up to three years without trial that was overturned by the Supreme Court in September.
Detainees are held at special facilities, given basic needs and even benefits like healthcare and education, and allowed to leave the facility during the day as long as they report daily to special stations, according to the program.
That is not enough, however, for the immigrants, whose cause has been championed by leftist "human rights" groups.
Illegal entrants previously staged a rally in which men fled the Holot center and marched on Jerusalem.
Residents of southern Tel Aviv, as well as those of other cities like Eilat, say they have been suffering from endless harassment, fear and violence perpetrated by the many illegal Eritrean and Sudanese infiltrators who enter Israel to find employment and come to live in their working-class neighborhood. Residents say they are terrified of leaving their homes and have begged the government to take action.
The bill faced considerable controversy in the Knesset, however, with both Leftist MKs and activist groups claiming the law was a violation of human rights.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) said in December that it and other rights groups were renewing efforts to appeal the bill, and had filed a petition against the new law. "The organizations claim that the new amendment does not abide by the principles set forth by the court's September 15 decision to overturn the previous amendment to the law, and is in many ways more severe than the nullified amendment," it said.
MKs behind the legislation reiterated earlier this month that the infiltrators are violating immigration laws, and that the waves of migrants had presented a major security risk to Israeli citizens.
MK Miri Regev (Likud) stated, “Residents of southern Tel Aviv and Eilat also have human rights," and echoed concerns about Israeli security made by Likud MK Gidon Sa'ar. Crime has skyrocketed in those areas since 2011.