An interview with Orit Marom, advocacy coordinator at ASSAF
How would you describe the public attitude towards the refugee issue in Israel?
It saddens me to see and hear on a daily basis expressions of hostility towards asylum-seekers. The incitement of the past few years and the de-legitimization have left their mark, and many Israelis no longer see asylum-seekers as human beings but rather as a threat. On the other hand, we at Assaf are receiving more and more messages of support and willingness to volunteer, which means that there are other voices here. I believe in change.
I believe that Israel can tackle this issue in humane fashion, and I hope that policy-makers will also come to understand that the threat lies not in 55,000 asylum-seekers but in the appalling policy adopted towards them. Regularization of their stay in Israel and granting work permits and access to basic services will lead to their healthy integration in Israeli society. This in its turn will lead to natural dispersion throughout Israel and easing of the burden on south Tel Aviv neighborhoods already suffering from years of neglect.
The refugees will live among us until they can return safely to their home countries. Whenever I discuss asylum-seekers, I stress that we are talking about women, men and children who were forced into migration. They were forced to flee their homes, to leave behind parents and families, homeland, language and culture and to roam the world in search of a haven. This is hard for us to imagine, we who are fortunate enough to enjoy homes and stable lives.
Do you think that the efforts to bridge the gap between Israelis and African refugees are proving successful? Is there more acceptance of asylum-seekers by Israelis?
Information activities and meetings with groups of Israelis are extremely important. We are operating, jointly with Amnesty, an exposure discussions project aimed at Israeli audiences, funded by the European Union and War-Child Holland. Over the past year we have met with groups from various sectors – high-school students, media studies and law students, social workers, journalists, police officers and others.
Our aim is to make inroads into the disinformation rife in the Israeli public, which exists because the media mostly adopt the government's standpoint and don't distinguish, for example, between "infiltrators", "asylum-seekers", and "migrant workers". Most Israelis don't know the truth about asylum-seekers in Israel.
We at Assaf exploit all the tools at our disposal in order to influence public discourse, but our impact is limited. We are a small organization with meager resources. We are, it goes without saying, well aware of the gap between the limited impact of weekly or monthly meetings with groups and the vast influence of the mass media. Therefore we are extensively using new-media social networks as Facebook to reach new audiences.
As an organization with limited resources, how are you tackling the growing needs in the field?
On the one hand, our psycho-social work with refugees on a one-to-one basis is critical. Without it, some of the applicants would end up in the street or at great risk. On the other hand, not enough individual and personal work is being done and we are very conscious of the importance of our public advocacy efforts and the need for promotion of policy aimed at far-reaching change. Sometimes we are faced with people desperately in need of aid, and what they urgently need, more than another item in the press, is an additional social worker who will listen to them. It is often very hard to prioritize among the various needs. The challenge is to create a balance between assistance to individuals and advocacy work for refugee rights.
Can you tell me how Assaf is trying to promote the welfare of refugees in Israel by public advocacy?
The policy we want to promote focuses on social rights and welfare issues, which always entails efforts to change Authorities' policy and public opinion. We naturally direct our efforts at the Ministry of Welfare and sometimes also at the Health Ministry.
Last week we took part in two sessions of the Foreign Workers Committee, one with the participation of the Health Minister and the other with the Minister of Welfare. Both of them expressed interest in our arguments and promised to examine the prevailing policy which bars asylum-seekers from access to social welfare.
I see this as progress of a kind and an opportunity for change. We are beginning to see the first glimmerings of hope and perhaps the voices of the refugees we have been striving to represent for years are beginning to be heard.