The area of South Tel Aviv, particularly the neighborhoods of Shapira and Neve Sha’anan, is considered one of the poorest and more dangerous parts of Israel. Today it is inhabited by thousands of migrant workers and refugees from the global south. Poverty and petty crime plague the area, but violence is generally infrequent, with the most recent violence carried out by Israelis unhappy with the new waves of immigration to the neighborhoods. South Tel Aviv has long been home to a marginalized and impoverished population; the recent influx of two hundred thousand migrant workers and over fifty thousand refugees isn’t responsible for the current urban blight. The story of the poverty in South Tel Aviv is part of a broader historical and economic narrative that centers around the New Central Bus Station, or in Hebrew, HaTachanah HaMerkazit Hachadasha.
For decades, South Tel Aviv has been the victim of first the construction and now the operation of the New Central Bus Station, often referred to as just the Central Bus Station. Completed in 1990 after nearly three decades of construction, the Central Bus Station shattered what was already a poor neighborhood on the city’s periphery. To accomodate the construction whole city blocks were demolished, ruining businesses and destroying homes. Housing prices in the area plummeted. Homelessness, vagrancy, and squatting characterized the area during the lengthy period of construction. Even today, twenty years after the bus station’s completion, swathes of trash-strewn, empty lots remain.
Prior to and during the construction, South Tel Aviv was home to new olim – Jewish immigrants to Israel. But the olim didn’t stay in the area, preferring to move out to better locations after earning enough money to do so. In the early 1990s, the olim stopped coming.
But something else happened in the mid 1990s: the signing of the Oslo Accords. Before the Oslo Accords, Arab workers had performed much of the menial labor in Israel. After the Oslo Accords, the supply of cheap, Palestinian labor stopped. Israel then, like other countries moving to a post-industrial economy, needed inexpensive and exploitable labor. To address the post-Oslo labor shortage, Israeli manpower companies began to recruit workers, mainly from Southeast Asia.
The migrant workers receive five-year visas from the Israeli government to work with businesses designated by the man power companies. The work visas are sold by the manpower companies for close to seven thousand dollars, though issuing the visas only costs the manpower companies a mere two thousand to three thousand shekels. Migrant workers in Israel buy into a kind of indentured servitude; they come, work to pay off the cost of the visa, and then typically send whatever earnings they have as remittances back home.
However, the five-year work visas are “bound visas” – migrant workers are bound to their employers. If a worker is fired, he loses his visa. If a worker quits his job, he loses his visa. The employment arrangement drastically curtails workers’ rights. If abused, they have no means of recourse, no method to voice complaints, and no way to collectively bargain for better working conditions and higher wages. Once the five-years are over, the workers are deported back to their countries of origin and replaced by a new wave of workers. Just yesterday, a new wave of workers from Nepal arrived, taking the places of people who were deported before them.
Alongside the migrant workers, in the neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv, live over fifty thousand refugees. Most of the refugees are from Sudan and Eritrea, as well as some from the Ivory Coast. Many walked through the Sinai desert to get to Israel. As a signatory of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, Israel cannot send the refugees back. But Israel also does not check the status of these refugees, since it would be obligated to send back those who technically do not qualify as refugees under the UN convention. Therefore, the African refugees in Israel aren’t fully registered refugees with the United Nations, and do not have any kind of official papers. Without official documentation, they cannot work. Some refugees manage to find undocumented employment in restaurants and other small businesses, but for the most part the refugees are unemployed and out of the reach of state services. Non-Jewish refugees, for the most part, receive no state aid and are reliant on community organizations and families. In the neighborhood of Shapira, where I live, many of the refugees sleep in Levinski Park, in the shadow of the Central Bus Station.
Other than deporting people, the state does little to address what’s going on in South Tel Aviv. The police seem to largely avoid the neighborhoods of Shapira and Neve Sha’anan, except to constrain the movement of migrant workers and refugees into other parts of the city. In the gentrifying, hipster neighborhood of Florentine, which is adjacent to Shapira, police occasionally harass Arab residents, refugees, and migrant workers who wander into the hipper parts of town.
The efforts to contain the “demographic problem” are emblematic of a larger facet of life in South Tel Aviv. Most Israelis are either indifferent to or ignorant of the plight of the migrant workers and refugees, even though the nation’s largest bus station (and the world’s largest bus station until 2010) is in the middle of the area. The Central Bus Station receives tens of thousands of Israelis a day. And yet none of them are ever forced to face the state of neighborhood. The bus station is sealed off from the surrounding squalor. It is windowless, designed to shield the travelers and shoppers inside from the reality outside. Each entrance is guarded by a security guard who frisks at will anyone who wishes to enter.
The Central Bus Station has kept the neighborhood poor: no one wants to live next to the second largest bus station in the world. And at the same time, the bus station keeps the poverty of the neighborhood hidden. The bus station serves as a fortress of neoliberalism; it protects the fantasy that post-industrial capitalism works from being shattered by the reality outside its walls – the hardship the workers go through to ensure the functioning of the economy, the refugees have received nothing from globalization but scarcity and strife. To build the Central Bus Station, the poor and vulnerable were forced from their homes. Now the Central Bus Station hides their existence from the people who exploit them.The Central Bus Station also protects the fragile Zionist fantasy, that of a Jewish and democratic state, from being squashed by the non-Jewish city inside the Jewish state. Just it hides the poor, the Central Bus Station hides the non-Jews, effectively erasing them from the cityscape – an act that, unfortunately, many Israelis approve of.