The subject of illegal African migrants in Israel has become a hot-button issue, with every imaginable group from human-rights organizations to the rabbis of the Conservative movement in America weighing in with advice for how Israel should deal with them.
I’ve chosen ‘migrants’ as the most neutral word. They are called everything from ‘infiltrators’ to ‘asylum-seekers’ to ‘refugees’, depending on the attitude the speaker has toward them.
First, here are some facts:
- There are 37,885 individuals considered ‘infiltrators’ living in Israel (Hebrew link to Israel Population and Immigration Authority). ‘Infiltrator’ in this context is defined as “a foreigner who entered Israel illegally via the Egyptian border.”
- 27,018 came from Eritrea, 7731 from Sudan, 2651 from various other African countries, and 485 from the rest of the world. They are mostly Christian and Muslim (I don’t know the breakdown among those in Israel, but about 63% of Eritreans are Christian).
- They began coming in the early 2000s, but since the completion of the border fence between Israel and Egypt, the flow decreased to a trickle. In 2017, the number was essentially zero.
- Israel has diplomatic relations with Eritrea, but not with Sudan. Both countries have extremely poor human rights records.
- There are approximately 74,000 tourists who have overstayed their visas in Israel, 69% of whom are from the former Soviet Union, and the rest from various other places. This post is not concerned with them.
- Most of the migrants live in South Tel Aviv, although some of them can be found in Eilat, Bat Yam, Jerusalem and other places. Many work in menial jobs in restaurants, etc.
The Eritean and Sudanese migrants cannot be deported to their home countries, because – among other things – they could be conscripted into the military, prosecuted for visiting Israel (considered a belligerent country in Sudan), and so forth. Israel has made agreements with several third countries, presumably Rwanda and Uganda, to accept those migrants who agree to go there “of their free will.” Israel will pay each of the migrants who leave $3500, and will also pay something to the countries to which they go. The latest version of Israel’s law governing illegal migrants makes it difficult to work and even allows them to be jailed if they don’t agree to leave, making the “free will” stipulation somewhat moot.
Many of the migrants and the NGOs and other groups that support them say that they are refugees and have a right to asylum in Israel. By international law, a refugee is
…an individual who is outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence who is unable or unwilling to return due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on his or her race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.
If a person enters another country, he or she may seek to be recognized as a refugee and to receive asylum, that is, permission for that person and immediate relatives to reside in the country. The decision to grant asylum or not is up to each country, and may depend on other factors than refugee status; for example, a criminal or a person who represents a security threat may not receive asylum. Even if asylum isn’t granted, the asylum-seeker may have other rights, such as not to be deported to a country where he or she would be tortured.
Those who leave a country to seek economic opportunity or for any reason other than “a well-founded fear of persecution” are not considered refugees. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) refers to the African migration to Israel as a “mixed migration,” i.e., of economic migrants and true refugees.
Although some of the migrants have applied for asylum, only a small number of the requests have been granted. The position of the government is that most of them are economic migrants. Meanwhile, asylum seekers whose status has not been decided receive temporary visas which allow them to work, but provide limited social benefits (e.g., in the area of health care). Money is deducted from their paychecks which is returned to them if they leave the country.
Many international and Israeli organizations including all the usual “human rights” groups have criticized the government of Israel for not granting asylum to the migrants, whom they characterize as refugees. They point to the fact that other countries (in Europe and North America) have done so to a much greater extent than Israel. On the other hand, Israel is required by international law to establish criteria for granting asylum, and has a right to set stricter ones than the much larger nations in Europe and North America.
Expelling illegal migrants to a third country in Africa is clearly not the ideal solution from the point of view of the migrants, who wished to leave the third-world environment they found themselves in. They would prefer developed countries like Israel, or countries in Europe or North America. This is understandable, but it should be clear that they are not being sent to their deaths as advocates claim. When widely publicized cases of mistreatment of migrants who voluntarily went from Israel to Rwanda are examined, it becomes clear that the horrific events described occurred when the migrants left Rwanda and attempted to reach Europe via Libya.
Israel is a very small and densely populated country (ranking 32nd out of 241 in density, where Germany is 56th, China is 80th, and the US comes in at 179th) with a delicate and volatile security situation. The migrants are concentrated in certain neighborhoods, where crime has increased drastically. Long-term residents find themselves trapped in worthless apartments, afraid to walk the streets at night, and quite legitimately ask whether the government – which at one time provided migrants apprehended at the border with tickets to the Tel Aviv central bus station – cares about them at all.
It’s true that the total number of migrants is small compared to Israel’s population, but who can doubt that if a large number of them were granted asylum, Israel would become the destination of choice for many more. The only really effective barrier against illegal economic migration is to make the country unattractive as a destination. Fences can only do so much; truly determined migrants will always find a way, as Europe is finding out.
Israel is an Island of the developed world in the midst of a sea of poverty, cruelty, kleptocracy and ignorance. The Jewish people created this Island, returning home after two millennia of persecution of every kind by Christian and, later, Muslim nations. Great sacrifices were made to create this tiny island, this “villa in the jungle” (a phrase coined by Ehud Barak which has both positive and negative connotations). Israel has done much to export its achievements to people in need, such as its worldwide missions to bring mobile hospitals to places that have suffered natural disasters, and its provision of medical care to wounded and sick Syrians, not to mention residents of the Palestinian Authority and even Gaza.
But Israel, smaller than New Jersey and with a population of 8 million, is not the address to solve the problems of the continent of Africa’s 1.2 billion people. This is the responsibility of Africans themselves, and perhaps also the European colonialists who figured so prominently in Africa’s recent history. One could also ask why the rich nations of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf do so little when they have so much.
It’s also relevant to note that the “human rights” groups that are so quick to accuse Israel of racism and general ill will toward the migrants are mostly the same ones that have participated in the delegitimization and demonization campaigns against her. And the usual suspects – European governments and the New Israel Fund, which have been waging diplomatic warfare against Israel for decades – have given large sums of money to groups and programs opposing Israel’s migrant policy. Note also that the liberal domestic politicians who care so much for the migrants are the same ones who wish to replace the present government.
Life isn’t easy in Africa, but lately it isn’t so easy in South Tel Aviv either. The latter is Israel’s responsibility. The former isn’t.