Israel is at a crossroads in handling African refugees
FEBRUARY 8, 2018 – As US society grapples with opposing viewpoints on what to do with illegal immigrants, Israelis face a similar imbroglio. Instead of illegals who came mostly from Mexico and Latin America, the people in question are from Africa.
It’s said that overall, there are tens of thousands of illegals in Israel. They run the gamut from foreign workers, mostly from places like the Philippines, China, and the former Soviet Union, who entered legally but overstayed their visas; through people who crossed borders illegally, whether to seek asylum or merely work; to people brought here by traffickers to engage, knowingly or unknowingly, in illicit trades.
Of these groups, the second stands out most. They are almost all from African countries that are plagued by famine, deep poverty, frightful civil wars or dictators at the helm of wholly corrupt or outright murderous regimes. Perhaps the two countries represented most are Eritrea and Sudan.
These illegals were attracted to Israel because it was seen as a land of wealth and opportunity. It was also relatively close by. The trip involved no lengthy distances or hazardous water crossings, although many of the Egyptian Beduin who brought them to the border with Israel in the Sinai Peninsula were known to rob, rape, and even kill some of their customers.
They were able to enter Israel because lengthy stretches of the Sinai border were demarcated by just a few strands of barbed wire, if even that. It was only a few years ago, when hundreds of illegals were said to be entering every day and their numbers had swelled to an estimated 50,000, that the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu moved to construct a tall, multi-tiered fence reinforced with electronic detection systems along the entire length of the border. It was completed in 2013 at a cost of close to half a billion dollars.
Since then, the flow of illegals across that border has dropped to the point where, in 2017, according to Netanyahu, not a single person made it across.
But what of those already in Israel?
They are primarily in Tel Aviv, because that’s where the promise of employment is brightest, whether on the books or under the table. Some are raising families, and there are teenage Africans, many born here, who speak Hebrew as well as any of their Jewish peers.
Because the illegals make little income, if any at all, they live in the most run-down parts of town, often crowded into small apartments. Those who do not qualify for special work permits enacted as a stop-gap usually congregate in parks and other public spaces, sitting idle and listening to boom boxes blaring African, rap, or reggae music. Most are men. Some are clearly inebriated.
The Israeli residents of these enclaves – people often already embittered by their low socioeconomic status – are clearly not happy, and they have long agitated for a solution.
The populist politicians who make the occasional foray there pander to some of the locals’ worst impulses by calling the illegals a “cancer” that must be “excised.” They make unsubstantiated claims that the illegals bring disease. They talk of claims, highly disputed, that they are responsible for an inordinate level of crime. Instead of using terms like “refugees” or “asylum-seekers” or even just “economic migrants,” the pols almost always call them “infiltrators,” which brings to mind the terrorists who once regularly crossed borders to kill and maim.
Over the years, a couple of facilities sprang up in the desert to house those detained because they had not appealed to the Interior Ministry for asylum as persecuted people according to United Nations standards. (It is said that most applied for this status – it is the only way they can receive the special work permits, which must be renewed every three months – but of the cases reviewed thus far, fewer than a dozen have been approved.)
Starting a couple of years ago, the Netanyahu government began offering the illegals small cash payments and a plane ticket home to Africa. Stories have filtered back about what has happened to the few thousand who accepted; the worst involve corrupt border officials who steal the cash when they arrive and then dump them into prisons. A few have even ended up in Europe, opting to head north from Libya and make the dangerous Mediterranean Sea crossing.
In a new twist, the Israeli government wants to issue the remaining 40,000 or so an ultimatum: either take cash and a one-way plane ticket or run the risk of forced deportation or prison. Reports have appeared that Israel reached a secret agreement with African countries such as Rwanda and Uganda, which would be paid a few thousand dollars per head for those deported. Rwanda has denied this.
The idea of forced deportation has raised an outcry among many Israelis, who say that Jews – of all people – should know what it is to be persecuted and then have doors slammed in your face.
Doctors and other professionals have signed open letters demanding that the government reconsider. El Al pilots have circulated petitions among fellow employees seeking declarations that they will refuse to be involved with any of the deportation flights. Holocaust survivors also have spoken out, especially as International Holocaust Remembrance Day was marked at the end of January. And to take the Holocaust metaphor a step further, many Israelis have openly stated that they would be ready to hide those slated for deportation or prison, much the way some gentiles hid Jews from the Nazis.
Perhaps the most awkward aspect of the entire issue is the fact that the government has seemed most keen to go after the Africans, and it was inevitable that this would give rise to charges of racism. This has infused an entirely new and ugly angle into an already complex problem, whether it involves Israel’s image abroad or a schism developing within Israeli society.
The residents who take to the streets to protest against the African illegals for seeming to have overrun their neighborhoods have been labeled racists. The residents – many of whom have actually urged the government to treat the illegals more fairly and find solutions other than those currently offered – resent this. In turn, they angrily charge that those who are most vocal about protecting the Africans live far away from these neighborhoods.
The US, a large country that sees itself as a melting pot, is deeply divided about the matter of immigration, especially of the illegal kind. Israel, a small country that sees itself first and foremost as a haven for Jews, is in much of the same turmoil, and it’s possible that the worst has yet to bubble to the surface.
Lawrence Rifkin is a Jerusalem-based journalist.