Israel wrestles with ‘economic migrants’ policy

American Jewish groups have criticized the Israeli government for its new policy forcing African migrants either to leave the country ‘voluntarily’ or face incarceration.

By: Steve Leibowitz, World Israel News

Israel is receiving a growing amount of blowback regarding its policy of dealing with African migrants.

As a nation of refugees, the Israeli population has a special affinity for persecuted populations because so many Jews have themselves been refugees or migrants.

Until a wall was completed in the Sinai in 2012, there was an annual flow of thousands of African migrants from Eritrea and Sudan that infiltrated Israel for refuge, work or both. Between 2006 and 2012 their numbers grew, and there was legitimate concern in Israel that if left unchecked, the flow of migrants could eventually pose a demographic problem for the country.

Since the completion of the Sinai barrier, the number of migrants reaching Israel has been reduced to a trickle and the remaining Sudanese and Eritrean migrants still in the country is estimated to be 38,000. Most of them are seeking asylum in Israel, and claim that if returned to their homelands their lives would be in danger.

The Israeli government plan is to indefinitely incarcerate or expel the migrants to the relatively safe Rwanda or another unnamed African country. Those willing to make the trip back to Africa are given $5,000 per person to help them on their way. Those unwilling to accept the payment face indefinite incarceration.

Government policy refers to the population as “economic migrants” and treats them as illegal infiltrators. Prime Minister Netanyahu has personally led an aggressive campaign through the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority to permanently expel the migrants. Cabinet ministers Gilad Erdan and Miri Regev have strongly backed the prime minister with claims that only a very small fraction of the migrants are legitimate asylum seekers, while most are described as “economic opportunists and criminal infiltrators.”

Land of opportunity?

Yehuda Shalem from Ariel University explained the policy to World Israel News (WIN), “The Eritrean migrants are not refugees. They came to Israel looking for work just like the so-called ‘Palestinians’ came for employment after the Zionists began settling the land of Israel. Eventually they will grow in numbers and they can start making demands like the Palestinians do. There is also a problem that the migrants marry Jewish Israelis and they become a separate community inside Israel.

“It’s absurd that the Israeli left is protecting them because migrants take jobs that can be filled by Palestinians. I don’t believe that most of them are refugees. They are not fleeing for their lives, they are seeking employment. We really have no idea who these people are. As nice as they may be as individuals we are creating a Jewish State, and not a state for the world’s needy.”

Former Jewish Agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz told WIN that he rejects the current policy calling it “xenophobia.”

“Its disgraceful the way we are treating these asylum seekers from Eritrea. There are no more migrants coming via Sinai so the demographic issue is not relevant any longer. These 40,000 poor people must be given opportunity to work,” said Jankelowitz.

Jankelowitz conitnued, “I visit south Tel Aviv and have contact with migrants. In my view, it’s ridiculous that we bring in foreign workers from the Philippines rather than allow these Africans to remain. They are mostly intelligent and highly literate. The government should remember that we too were refugees. If we send them back to Africa many will be robbed, murdered or may just die of hunger. We are over eight million strong. Surely we can absorb and integrate these poor, suffering people.”

‘Economic migrants’ or ‘refugees’?

Are those in question “economic migrants” which is the terminology Prime Minister Netanyahu prefers, or are they “refugees”? Until now there was really no clear answer. The government has to date failed to review the vast majority of the over 12,000 refugee asylum applications it has received since 2013. Thousands more have reportedly been denied the right to even submit a form requesting asylum. Of the forms that have been examined only 11 people – 10 Eritreans and one Sudanese – have been granted refugee status.

One reason for the tough Israeli policy is that most of the migrants have settled into poor neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv and a large African migrant ghetto has emerged. Israeli residents feel under siege by the demographic changes in their neighborhoods prompting protests and lobbying of political leaders. Prime Minister Netanyahu got involved promising to “give back” the neighborhood to Israeli citizens.

Some residents have accused the refugees of being responsible for the area’s dismal conditions. Others say that the neighborhoods in question were in bad shape before the arrival of the migrant population and that south Tel Aviv was always neglected and crime infested.

Amnesty International points out that Israel was among the first to sign the UN Convention on Refugees and that Israel itself is populated with millions of asylum seekers who once faced certain death. Amnesty campaigner Chen Brill Egri told WIN, “The government must grant these people the right to ask for refugee status and they must seriously examine those requests. In other words, Israel should either abide by the treaty or remove its name. “