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Accepted paper:

Economic Self-Sufficiency Amidst Visions of Destitution: Eritrean and Sudanese Asylum Seekers in Israel


Ilil Benjamin (Johns Hopkins University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper examines current tensions between Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers living in Israel, on the one hand, and Israeli NGO workers and volunteers, on the other. I argue that aid workers and asylum seekers may define economic self-sufficiency differently, resulting in poor aid outcomes.

Paper long abstract:

Since the mid-2000s, approximately 50,000 sub-Saharan asylum seekers have arrived in Israel, many of them fleeing ethnic violence and force conscription in Sudan and Eritrea, respectively. While awaiting decision on their asylum applications in Israel, they have navigated varying conditions of economic and political precarity amidst a booming swell of Israeli NGO assistance. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in two Israeli medical and psychosocial NGOs in 2011-2013, I focus on instances of repurposing and challenging of aid by beneficiaries, and what these can tell us about how aid workers and asylum seekers may define economic self-sufficiency differently. I argue that several well-meaning programs to promote economic self-sufficiency, including a childcare cooperative and "know your rights" workshops, have met with resistance and skepticism by asylum seekers who felt ignored or condescended to in the process. Meanwhile, several pathways to economic self-sufficiency spearheaded by asylum seekers and migrants themselves have met with criticism by aid workers and volunteers. For example, mothers pleading for food from a number of different NGOs were accused of "NGO shopping," while ironically, asylum seekers who independently obtained economic self-sufficiency in Israel's agriculture and construction sectors, elicited resentment by aid workers and risked being excluded from the category of "deserving refugee." I conclude by reflecting on the lingering unease within a refugee-focused NGO sphere, which has a long history of seeing its beneficiaries as helpless and destitute, with the real-life economic needs and agency of asylum seekers.

panel AA08
Trajectories of refuge: protracted displacement and humanitarian responses