Since 2009 Israel has granted refugee status to only three African asylum-seekers out of a total of 45,000 who arrived at its border with Egypt. Activists say that is a poor record for a country created by refugees escaping persecution. Vita Bekker, Foreign Correspondent, reports
For Ibrahim Saadeldin, life in Sudan's war-riven Darfur region was hellish.
As a law student in 2004, he says he was beaten by state security forces after refusing to join the army. Months later, he was abducted, blindfolded, beaten and threatened with execution by the pro-government Janjaweed militia, which also killed his brother. Suspected of being a rebel, he was imprisoned and tortured, including with hot metal rods, before escaping to Egypt and then to Israel.
Despite the hardships that the 30-year-old had endured in his home country, and his fear of political persecution should he return, Israel does not recognise him as a refugee.
However, Mr Saadeldin is hardly alone. Since 2009, Israel has granted refugee status to only three African asylum-seekers out of a total of about 45,000 who have illegally arrived at its border with Egypt, charging that they had immigrated merely to improve their livelihoods.
"They accuse us of being labour migrants - but we are refugees and we have rights," said Mr Saadeldin. "Every day the government makes new decisions against us. We live in a constant state of anxiety and we don't know what will happen tomorrow."
Israel's treatment of asylum-seekers from violent African countries - mostly from Sudan and Eritrea - is drawing condemnation from human-rights groups as the country tries to stem the influx along its porous 250-kilometre desert frontier with Egypt.
Among its contentious measures, Israel intends to build a security fence along its border with Egypt and construct a massive prison that would hold as many as 15,000 so-called infiltrators. Activists say it would be the world's largest jail for asylum-seekers. This month, the parliament also passed legislation that would allow authorities to detain for an indefinite period anyone illegally crossing its border. Rights advocates have blasted the penalty as immoral and claimed it was an unusual move among western countries, which typically have finite detentions.
Israel refuses to help asylum-seekers with housing, health care, welfare or education, and does not provide them with official work permits, forcing many to seek low-paying jobs with dire conditions. "Most western countries give asylum-seekers rights like housing or welfare, if not work permits, during the asylum process," said Reut Michaeli, who heads the Tel Aviv activist group Hotline for Migrant Workers.
Refugee advocates also condemn Israel's refusal to recognise any Sudanese or Eritrean - who altogether make up 85 per cent of asylum-seekers in Israel - as refugees.
Sabin Hadad, an interior ministry spokeswoman, said the Israeli government decided in 2008 to provide a "blanket protection" for all migrants from Sudan or Eritrea that would prevent them from being deported. Such protection, she added, has meant that there has been no urgency in advancing their asylum applications.
Mrs Hadad also dismissed activists' claims that the government's decision was an excuse not to grant any Sudanese or Eritreans asylum rights.
While all developed countries face the challenge of how to deal with a tide of poor asylum-seekers, refugee advocates claim that Israel is performing especially badly in processing their asylum requests.
UN figures show that in 2010, Israel made only 17 decisions on whether to grant asylum out of a total of 5,592 people, mostly from Africa, whose applications were pending. By comparison, the US made decisions on 40,545 asylum-seekers that year out of a total of 72,464 whose applications were pending. The UAE has also proven more efficient than Israel, deciding on the requests of 428 asylum-seekers out of 514 people with pending applications.
Yesterday, Israel's interior ministry announced that about 7,000 South Sudanese in Israel would have to leave by the end of March or face deportation because their region gained independence from Sudan in July.
This month, the Israeli government plans to expel some 2,000 migrants from the Ivory Coast. This decision comes despite the United Nations in July saying it is extending its peacekeeping operation by another year because the situation in the Ivory Coast "continues to pose a threat to international peace and security in the region".
Ivorians residing in Israel, to whom Israel last month stopped extending visas, have vowed to fight the deportation. Bernard Abet, a 35-year-old who has been in Israel since 1997, said his older brother was kidnapped and killed in post-election violence last year in Abidjan, the country's largest city, while his mother and sister escaped to neighbouring Ghana. "I will go to jail before they make me return," said Mr Abet during a walk near his home in Tel Aviv. "The security situation there is not stable and I am afraid they'll also kill me."
Mr Abet said he plans to organise a protest and reapply for asylum.
But his quest is unlikely to succeed in a country that refugee advocates claim has one of the lowest rates for granting asylum.
Israel insists most of the Africans arrived solely to improve their economic well-being and fears that if it allows them to remain and work then others will follow.
Concerns have also emerged among religious groups and the right-wing that the increase in African migrants might reduce Israel's Jewish majority, especially in the face of a fast-growing Palestinian population both within Israel's recognised borders and in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Israel has faced much criticism for its policies, mostly because the country itself was created more than six decades ago by refugees who escaped the persecution of Jews that culminated in the Holocaust.
Despite Israel's approach, an average of about 1,000 asylum-seekers from Africa arrive each month, risking their lives with harrowing experiences as they make perilous treks across the Sinai desert.
Hundreds have been shot by Egyptian border guards whom activists claim are trigger-happy, and women have been frequent victims of gang-rape by their Bedouin guides. Some aid workers say they have testimonies from dozens of Eritreans who were held captive for ransoms of as much as US$10,000 (Dh36,700) by traffickers while trying to get to Israel.
Once in Israel, most come to Tel Aviv, the country's business and cultural centre, in search of jobs, their growing presence spurring tensions with some locals.
Indeed, a group of residents has been advancing a campaign not to rent homes to the African newcomers while the Tel Aviv municipality has issued an order to shut down businesses that employ them. Dozens of those who lack homes or jobs have taken refuge at a park near Tel Aviv's central bus station, often sleeping on flattened carton boxes in the playground or on grass areas as they huddle under donated blankets.
Despite their plights, some asylum-seekers have managed to rebuild their lives.
Mr Saadeldin, who walked for three days through Sinai with only one bottle of Coke before reaching Israel in 2006, already speaks fluent Hebrew and works in the Tel Aviv municipality's education department. An ardent refugee activist and law student, Mr Saadeldin said he serves as a bridge between Israelis and asylum-seekers and has given dozens of speeches about his experiences.
"I tell my story to help Israelis understand that we are refugees - just like the people who had founded this country were," he said.