As a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and to its subsequent protocols, Israel has a history of taking in refugees going back to 1977 when an Israeli cargo ship picked up a group of Vietnamese refugees near Japan. To much international acclaim, Menachem Begin granted them refugee status, saying at the time, “We have never forgotten the lot of our people, persecuted, humiliated, and ultimately physically destroyed. Therefore, it was natural that my first act as Prime Minister was to give those people a haven in the Land of Israel.”
In May 2000, after the Hezbollah defeated the South Lebanese Army, a Christian militia group allied with Israel, and Israel offered a haven to more than 2,000 of its fighters.
All this was minimal compared to the situation that began in 2005 when small numbers of Sudanese fled from racist Egypt to Israel. News trickled back that Israel was a great place. In 2006, asylum seekers from war torn southern Sudan and Eritrea began pouring over the Egyptian border into Israel, a leap often attributed to a demonstration of Sudanese demonstrators in Cairo in 2005 where Egyptian police killed 28 refugees.
450 refugee applications were registered in 2005, in 2006 the number more than doubled to 1,200, by the following year it hit 5,700, and by 2008 the numbers of refugees leaped to 7,700. Presently, there are more than 60,000 refugees in the country, and 2,000 to 3,000 more pour in each month. Initially, there was little Israel could do to stop them as the 150 mile border with Egypt was less guarded than Israel’s other borders due to the peace prevailing with Egypt. These refugees are coming mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, but also from a number of other countries including the Philippines, Nigeria, Colombia, Sri Lanka, and Burma.
As Netanyahu once explained, the problem is that Israel is “the only developed country that you reach on foot from the poorest countries in Africa.”
Like refugees everywhere, these refugees were taking considerable risk to improve their lives in what they perceived as a Jewish utopia of wealth and opportunity. In 2008-09 when Egypt was still guarding the border, Egyptian forces shot about thirty migrants attempting to cross into Israel. Nowadays, the infiltrators are at the mercy of the Bedouin groups that smuggle them through.
“Groups of refugees, mainly from Eritrea, are being held captive by smugglers at torture camps in the El-Arish area while on the journey through the Sinai to Israel,” Israel’s Physicians for Human Rights organization reported last year. “The smugglers are demanding ransoms of thousands of dollars for the release of each captive. Methods used to apply pressure on the captives’ relatives to pay up include systematic violence and torture of the hostages. Smugglers telephone captives’ relatives so they can hear the cries of pain over the phone. Survivors report the use of systemic violence, including punching, slapping, kicking, and whipping. Forms of torture include burial in sand, electric shocks, etc.”
“There were thirty-three of us who came through Sinai, and only seven of us reached the border,” an Eritrean immigrant reported. “All the rest were killed, or caught, or they just died on the way.”
Once in Israel, the most they can hope for is doing work no one else wants to do for whatever it will pay, working as garbage collectors, gardeners, fruit and vegetable packers, cleaners, janitors, and dishwashers.
Actually, the number of asylum seekers is far less than the hundreds of thousands of Israel’s labor immigrants. By the early 2000s, Israel hosted proportionally more labor migrants than most European states. By 2008, the country was saddled with 115,000 legal and 107,000 illegal foreign workers.
What led to Israel becoming a work haven for Philippines, Romania, Thailand, and Turkey? This was a direct result of the violent uprising of the Palestinians in the first Intifada (1987-1993) and the Oslo Accords of 1993. Until then, Arabs from the areas Israel took over in 1967 were a plentiful source of cheap labor. During the Intifada, Israel began imposing severe restrictions on the Palestinians’ movements and Israeli employers lost their endless labor pool. Also, the two state solution advocated at Oslo encouraged the development of separate Palestinian and Israeli economies and labor markets. At the same time, Israel was experiencing unprecedented economic growth and was in desperate need of workers to pick its tomatoes and operate its production lines. Jewish immigrants pouring into Israel at the time were not interested in spending hot days in the sun picking tomatoes or working on production lines. When Israel’s Labor Ministry bussed Jewish immigrants to pack vegetables, employers consistently discovered that they were “incapable” of doing a decent job. Following fierce lobbying by employer’s groups, the government began issuing foreign worker permits.
This has led to well over a hundred thousand illegal foreign workers in Israel in addition to the illegal aliens from Africa. However, the illegal workers are more widely dispersed than the African infiltrators and have less of a reputation for crime.
BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD SPOT
All this puts Israel between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, Israel likes to portray itself as the nice kid on the block and an upholder of democratic, humanitarian values. On the other hand, encouraging refugees to enter its borders endangers its existence as a Jewish state. Because of this, Israel tries to minimize the damage, granting temporary assistance and work permits to some, while detaining thousands of others and forcing hundreds to leave the country. This led one activist to complain, “The goal of the system, and those heading it is to reject as many requests as possible. These actions lead to the immoral deportation of refugees to places where their lives are in danger, in opposition to Israel’s international commitments and despite the personal history of the people and society in Israel.”
Because most migrants come from Sudan, an enemy state, and Eritrea, a country with an abysmal human rights record, it is difficult to demarcate between refugee and economic migrant. So far, Israel has quietly allowed most of them to stay without processing their asylum applications. The U.S. State Department criticized this practice in a report on global human rights released last Thursday, noting that of 4,603 asylum applications in 2011, Israel only gave final approval to one. Meanwhile, the rest remain in limbo, not allowed to work and with no access to public health care.
Actually, while legally barring Israelis from employing illegal immigrants, the government does not enforce the ban in order to prevent the Africans from leading a life of crime and violence. The Supreme Court decided last January that employers of refugees and asylum seekers would not be fined, giving the Africans de-facto clearance to work in Israel.
Israel’s Jewish population is divided. Poor Israelis sharing neighborhoods with Africans want them out, and many regard them as a threat to the Jewish nature of the country. Residents of effected neighborhoods live in fear. At demonstrations, they hold signs reading, “This isn’t racism. It’s a fight for survival.” “We are afraid.” “Eli Yishai, we’re with you the whole way.”
In Eilat, distributed fliers warned people, “Residents of Eilat, wake up!!! … The Sudanese have taken over Eilat … soon they’ll be the majority … a nightmare on the streets!!! We have to fight for our home …”
On the other hand, many organizations fight for the aliens’ cause. These include the ASAF Organization for Helping Refugees and Haven Seekers; the Israel ARDC that provides them with shelters and apartments; Anu Pletim that provides them with legal assistance; Hagar and Miriam that devotes its efforts to helping African women; the Refugee Clinic in Tel Aviv; Amnesty International in Israel; and the Assistance Center for Foreign Workers. Early arrivals from Africa created the Bnei Darfur organization to help later arrivals.
To keep the problem from getting worse, Israel began building a fence along the Egyptian border in 2010, which now closes off 90 miles of the Egyptian border. In reaction, illegal immigrants are now infiltrating further south in a perilous mountain region near Eilat that is filled with steep peaks and deep wadis. To handle those who get in, Israel is planning to build a huge detention facility in the Negev that will eventually hold 11,000 illegal aliens while courts determine which of them, if any, have true refugee status.
Recently, Israel made an effort to solve the alien crisis by offering an assistance package to aliens who agree to return home voluntarily. Few had come forward by the April 30 deadline.
As the number of aliens grow, Israelis feel more threatened. A liberal columnist, Darryl Derfner, admitted last month that this is not mere racism.
“Starting in 2006, when there were fewer than 200 African refugees in the country, I wrote dozens of op-eds and features in The Jerusalem Post saying Israel has to take in these horribly victimized people, to let them live freely, to allow them the opportunity to work, start families and remain here,” he wrote. “That was when there were a few hundred, then a thousand, then a few thousand, then several thousand refugees — before the complaints from Israelis in South Tel Aviv, Eilat, Arad, Ashdod and Ashkelon began surfacing, when it was possible to write such complaints off as a few people’s irrational reaction to black people. I heard plenty of warnings, and not just from right-wingers, that an open-door policy to the refugees would encourage huge numbers of others to follow, but I didn’t want to take those warnings seriously, and my sense is that pro-refugee activists, lawyers and other journalists didn’t want to take them seriously, either, or they told themselves things would work out.
“But those warnings have come true. There are at least 60,000 African refugees, mostly from Eritrea, in the country now. The head of the UN refugee office in Israel, William Tall, told me in late March that 2,000 to 3,000 more are crossing from Sinai into Israel every month — double last year’s rate.”
This May, the figure was 2,031. On Yom Ha’atzma’ut the situation hit crisis proportions when three refugees attacked two reveling minors in the early hours of the morning, the culmination of several violent crimes perpetrated by African immigrants not long before. Tel Aviv residents retaliated by firebombing four African homes and a kindergarten that serves illegal aliens.
Two neighborhoods of Bnei Brak, Pardes Katz and Kiryat Herzog, have also been suffering increasingly from the incursion of illegal immigrants and had unsuccessful meetings about it in the past. A few weeks ago, rabbonim and askonim of the neighborhood held yet another meeting where they decided to take further measures to arouse the residents of the neighborhoods into assertive action. They issued a request to residents not to rent to the immigrants and, unlike at former meetings, ruled that one may even inform on Jews who do so.
The Yated spoke to the initiator of the meeting, Councilman Gedalyahu Ben Shimon.
What is the problem in Bnei Brak?.
The main problem in Pardes Katz concerns Sudanese and Eritreans who have taken control of the place. Recently, Pardes Katz has become very charedi; young couples are moving in, secular Jews are moving out. But during the last three or four years four Sudanese and Eritreans arrived and since then the neighborhood has started going downhill. There is an absolute threat over the Jewish majority in Pardes Katz. The illegal immigrants do acts of vandalism and interfere with children. Women are afraid to go out into the streets. They are people with no din and no dayan.
Who provides them with living space?
People who own apartments rent them out. They don’t rent places to live like you or I do. They pay $100 a head and thirty of them squeeze into one apartment. Yesterday I organized an emergency meeting of the rabbis of Pardes Katz, to discuss what to do and I hope to go to the gedolei Yisroel for advice on how to approach the problem.
A year ago you said there was nothing to do about the situation because it is a national problem.
You are right; it is a national problem, but in Bnei Brak the fight must be different.
You mean that daas Torah should be imposed on the situation?
Yes. It needs to be determined whether it is correct to employ Sudanese or rent them apartments, how Hashomrim should deal with them, and suchlike. We also want to have an emergency meeting attended by the avreichim of the neighborhood together with the mayor and see together how to solve the problem. Not to solve it, but how to deal with it.
How can you force people to not rent apartments?
The moment there is daas Torah not to rent to such people, we hope this will lessen the trend that has been increasing over the years.
Why is there only a problem in Pardes Katz?
Because Pardes Katz is a partially non-religious neighborhood and it is easier for problematic types to live there. If they came to Bnei Brak proper, they would be thrown out very fast.
At an emergency meeting this month, Bnei Brak rabbis, politicians, and activists proposed establishing special patrols, examining the possibility of informing against employers to tax authorities and law officials as well as handing the municipality information against people dividing their apartments into roomlets to squeeze in the maximum number of infiltrators for maximum profits. It was also proposed that special rabbinical courts issue warnings to such rent sharks.
AS mentioned earlier, this is not the first time Bnei Brak has moved to oust its unwelcome guests. In November 2010, six rabbis ruled against renting to illegal immigrants, one of them warning, “It is a spiritual danger and Pardes Katz has become Sudan.” At the time, municipal inspectors roamed through Pardes Katz informing illegal immigrants they must leave and began inspecting apartments suspected of being illegally subdivided to accommodate them. At the time too, the municipality announced a campaign to stop landlords from renting to illegal immigrants and some rabbis made similar appeals. Perhaps this time the proposals will turn into actions that stick.
The Knesset is debating the issues and attempting to reach a consensus of how to take action. At a stormy meeting held recently, a Knesset committee dealing with foreign worker issues debated how to deal with illegal alien crime. Tel Aviv’s police chief, Aharon Axel, suggested that the solution was to issue them work permits.
“We identify a rising crime rate among the illegal immigrants in the past few months,” he said. “The increase is of tens of percents of violent crimes and I assume this doesn’t surprise anyone here. The rising tension between the residents of south Tel Aviv and the illegal immigrants is no small danger. The phenomenon is only beginning and if we don’t do anything it will only get worse… We think that these people are committing crimes in order to survive. Therefore, we say that at this stage, the employment of illegal immigrants in one way or another will alleviate the situation.”
Yossi Adelstein, Director of the Foreigners Department in the Population and Immigration Authority, warned that this would be a giant mistake, since the prime motivation driving them to come to Israel in the first place is because of their financial situation.
“If we allow them to work we will be flooded by hundreds of thousands,” he said. Israel is the only democracy in the world with a land border with Africa.”
At a conference in Ramle, Minister of the Interior, MK Eli Yishai, repeated his long standing opinion that the only way to solve the illegal alien problem is to rid Israel of aliens.
“The border fence is important, and the detention facility is much more important,” he said. “The goal is not only to prevent their entry into Israel, but also to remove the 58,000 infiltrators who are already here. Look at what’s happening in Eilat and Arad and is about to happen in Ashdod and in Netanya as well. We all know about Tel Aviv.”
Yishai warned that border crossings will increase in coming months “because they’re convinced that once they’re in Israel it is very hard to remove them, and to my great regret that is true. I hope that eventually we’ll succeed in creating ties with Sudan and Eritrea and other countries so that it’s possible to remove the migrants who’ve reached Israel in exchange for payment to a third country… In the coming months, immediately upon completion of the detention facility, we will start enforcement; it will be very painful, very difficult, with very high fines. The process will be very, very complex but there is no alternative in dealing with the problem. You are all familiar with what is happening in Tel Aviv, everywhere, terrible things, very difficult scenes.”
This Sunday, a law came into effect giving Israeli authorities the power to detain illegal immigrants for up to three years. In addition, new legislation calls for a five-year jail sentence and a half a million shekel ($130,000) fine for anyone providing them with employment.
The Foreign Ministry is developing a similar approach with the support of Prime Minister Netanyahu. The ministry has been in regular contact with South Sudan. This June 17, a planeload of some 200 South Sudanese who have agreed to leave voluntarily is expected to leave for the capital, Juba, and another should be flying in mid-July.
Leftists denounce moves to deport illegal aliens as racist and claim the aliens may be in danger if they return to their home countries. However, the Foreign Ministry and Attorney General, Yehuda Weinstein, have determined that most aliens can safely return home. Weinstein said he supported the expelling of illegal immigrants if they are found to be not legally entitled to asylum.
This will not be a simple process. In a Cabinet meeting last week, it was determined that Israel is contending with two very different groups of infiltrators. One is the approximately 25,000 infiltrators from countries with which Israel has diplomatic relations, who can be sent back under international law. Regarding these Netanyahu said, “Whoever can be sent away should be sent away from here as quickly as possible.”
The second group comprises 35,000 infiltrators from Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia who cannot be sent back automatically as their lives might be at risk. Sudan is an enemy country, while Eritrea may severely punish those who fled the country before doing mandatory military service.
Two weeks ago, a thousand protesters rallied in Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood calling for the expelling of African migrants from Israel. The demonstration turned violent. A small group began burning garbage cans and smashing car windows and damaged a car with three illegal aliens inside. After the demonstration, protesters smashed the windows of a grocery store and hair saloon that serve the migrant community. There were seventeen arrests. Since then there have been more demonstrations and violence against infiltrators, including an attack against a downtown apartment in Yerushalayim where arsonists left a scrawled warning — “Get out the neighborhood.” Ten Eritreans were trapped inside and two suffered from smoke inhalation and burns.
In reaction, the government has decided to get tough. This week, Israel began rounding up African infiltrators in the first stage of an “emergency plan.” By Monday, dozens of infiltrators including women and children were rounded up in Eilat. Infiltrators who volunteer to leave will receive free plane tickets and grants of 1,000 euros.
“I prefer that there will be criticism of Israel while the state remains Jewish,” Eli Yishai said to IDF Radio. “than for there to be no criticism and for us to look back in 10 years’ time and remember how we were democratic, took in all the infiltrators and made a mistake.”
Despite everything, Israel is confident that it will be able to defuse the infiltrator time bomb before it is too late.
(Partial source: Karin Fathimath Afeef, A Promised Land for Refugees? Asylum and Migration in Israel, NUHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, 2009)