Thousands of women and children from Israel's illegal immigrant population staged a protest march in Tel Aviv Wednesday against the Jewish state's immigration policies.
"We are refugees," women chanted, many of them carrying infants or pushing strollers along the streets of the coastal city where most of them live.
Holding placards reading "We need freedom" and "stop racism!" they marched first to the headquarters of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and then on to the US embassy.
Last week, the UNHCR warned that Israel could be in breach of international law with new legislation that allows for the potentially indefinite detention of asylum-seekers.
"We are seeking asylum. We're not criminals," said an Eritrean woman who only gave her name as Zabib, saying she hoped the government would grant them refugee status. "Our kids have no legal documents so they don't have any basic rights. We have no kind of support for us and the kids... we're in survival mode," she told AFP.
While the women themselves may have not been involved in criminal activity, the Infiltrator Law was designed to help stop a violent crime wave which has blighted southern Tel Aviv in particular as a direct result of illegal immigration from Eritrea and Sudan.
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 migrants entering the country illegally, which Israel says poses both a security and demographic threat.
The new law amends earlier legislation which allowed for illegal 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.
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 to leave 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. MKs behind the legislation reiterated in December that the infiltrators are violating immigration laws, and that the waves of migrants presented a major security risk to Israeli citizens.
MK Miri Regev (Likud) said that “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 both of those cities since 2011.
Last Wednesday, the protesting infiltrators moved to Jerusalem, where they surrounded the Knesset. Their declared demand to speak with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Saar was not granted, and the request prompted Defense Minister Danny Danon to quip "they want to negotiate? After they get their passports checked at Ben Gurion Airport we’ll hear their demands."
The illegal migrants' protests are organized by leftist groups that attempt to create the impression that they are spontaneous. Many human rights groups do not see the issue of "nationality" as relevant, and are working toward an idea of "universal citizenship" which would overrule security concerns and other issues.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has refused to budge, however, and responded to the protests last week by saying "I want to clarify: no protests or strikes will help, just as we have succeeded in completely blocking illegal infiltration, so will we firmly remove from here those that succeeded in entering."
"These are not refugees, those we are dealing with according to the international accords," added Netanyahu. "These are illegal work infiltrators and we intend to pursue the law regarding them to the end."