TEL AVIV — A rank stench rises up from the basement shelter crammed with mattresses and blankets. There is only one bathroom for the 170 Africans who live here, and there is no shower. Most have not bathed in weeks.Several shelters like these are scattered through the hard-luck streets of south Tel Aviv. Funded mostly by private donations and the city, they are filling up as the Israeli government grants hundreds of illegal African migrants temporary shelter in the country and, in some cases, work permits because the situation in their own countries is so unstable.
Some 800 Africans currently live in the dank shelters of Tel Aviv. With the government releasing scores more currently being held in prison since illegally entering Israel from neighboring Egypt, the shelters may get even more crowded.
"Here it’s better because you are free," said Filmon Jekleab, 22, an Eriterian who came to the shelter after three months at the Ketziot prison in Israel’s Negev desert, where the Africans are housed in a makeshift tent encampment.
His friend Ibrahani Tesgai, 26, who deserted the Eritrean army, interjects as he pours watery coffee from a bowl into small plastic cups. "Here it’s almost prison,” he says.
There is no running water in the shelter. A volunteer organization delivers food, sometimes sporadically.
All those in the shelters are asylum seekers, but the small office in Israel of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees cannot review all their cases. At the moment, the majority are from the Ivory Coast and Eritrea. The Eritreans have been granted work visas by Israel’s Interior Ministry because of the instability in Eritrea, but those from the Ivory Coast face deportation because the UN has said it is safe to return to that country now that the war there is practically over.
Advocates for the Africans and Tel Aviv officials say they welcome the government’s decision after months of lobbying to release many of the Africans who were imprisoned, but they say the government in Jerusalem is being irresponsible by not providing any assistance.
On an almost daily basis, about 50 Africans arrive in Tel Aviv with nowhere to go but these shelters. The Welfare Ministry rejects the notion that it should help them, saying the ministry has no budget – or orders – to do so.
"It’s up to the cities to deal with it. We have neither the budget nor instructions to deal with them," Nachum Ido, a ministry spokesman, said in reference to the refugees. "I think the government will soon have to deal with this and find money."
Government officials have said they are sympathetic to the Africans’ plight but are wary of Israel, a state the size of New Jersey with a population of some 7 million, being overwhelmed by a flood of African migrants. Many Israelis say the government first must deal with its own needy communities before helping disadvantaged foreigners.
"There is a feeling of crisis,” said Tally Krietzman, a lawyer from the Tel Aviv University Refugee Rights program who is trying to find the Africans work. “The Ministry of Interior is letting them stay and the prisons are letting them out. But when they come out they don’t have a cent in pocket and no Hebrew, so these people are going to be dependent for a while.”
The goal is for the Africans to stay at the shelters only until they find work and can move into their own apartments, said Elisheva Milikowsky, 25, a social work student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev who has become one of the main organizers overseeing the Africans’ needs.
Milikowsky’s work is an extension of the volunteer work she began last summer in Beersheva, when hundreds of Sudanese refugees were being dropped off in the city after being picked up by army patrols that caught them after they crossed into Israel from Egypt by foot.
The refugees dubbed Milikowsky the "angel of the Sudanese" for her help finding them food and shelter.
Outside the shelter on Matalon Street, a 24-year-old man from Eriteria who is ill and has trouble walking approaches Milikowsky and asks for another appointment with a doctor.
She writes down his name on her yellow legal pad, which is full of names and requests for help. Another Eritrean man shows her his new work permit folded into a plastic cover and asks to be remembered if she finds jobs.
Later, Milikowsky hears the story of a man whose wife was caught by the Egyptian police as the couple tried to cross the border into Israel. He has not heard from her since, and now he is alone is Israel with their 6-month-old baby.
Back at the shelter, she again is asked about how long it will take for work permits to be processed. She reminds the men, who at this shelter are mostly from Eritrea, that they are relatively lucky the Israeli government has allowed them to stay at all.
A few blocks away, at a shelter where the men are mostly from the Ivory Coast, there are no such reassurances. The government has stopped distributing work permits to them, and Israel is encouraging them to return home.
"Look, I have no slippers," says one, showing his two mismatched flip-flops. Next to him are ripped-open boxes of donated food and clothes dropped off for the refugees but first picked through by local Israelis, many of them indigent themselves. The Africans finger the expiration dates on a cereal box and ask if it is still okay to eat.
Laso Kosse, 39, arrived in Israel from the Ivory Coast after a long journey through Mali, Niger, Libya and Egypt. At home he had a clothing store but fled because of fighting.
"You cannot be without a work permit – look around at all these young men," he said, pointing at a small crowd gathered around. "They are hungry."
Yael Dayan, deputy mayor of Tel Aviv, said the city is overwhelmed and cannot handle this wave of homeless Africans. She urged the Israeli government to help.
"They cannot dump this on us; no municipality can handle this,” she told JTA. “If they take them out of prison, then they have to make sure they at least will have a roof over their heads.”
Some 800 Africans remain in Ketziot Prison. About 80 of them are women, some of whom are with children, including babies born there.
Human rights groups have petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court for relief, but without success. The state told the court it is in the process of improving conditions for the Africans at the prison.