In the coming weeks the cabinet is set to decide on a range of policies regarding the growing influx of economic migrants into the country. Some of the decisions will be more concrete in nature – such as final approval for the construction of a security fence along an 80km stretch of the 120km border with Egypt – while others are intended to firm up the currently ambiguous guidelines for deciding on refugee status. The issues are urgent, as Israel has thus far failed to internalize the fact that it has ceased to be exclusively an aliya country, but rather now attracts large-scale non-Jewish immigration and economic migration. For this reason, the country has never appropriately addressed the subject.
There is almost unanimous agreement that Israel is unprepared to cope with the political, social, security and economic challenges that its immigrants bring with them.
The longer the government takes to formulate and implement policy, the worse the problem becomes. At this juncture, it is worth zooming in on the issue of African migrant workers crossing over from Egypt, as this issue has become one of the most pressing.
According to the latest government figures, there are some 145,000 foreign workers currently in the country. Of these, 107,000 are here legally and 18,500 are here illegally. Some 19,500 were smuggled into the country by a vast and professional smuggling network spanning Africa, the Sinai and the Negev.
Most of the Africans smuggled across the Egyptian border are from Eritrea, followed by people from Sudan, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Ghana. There are 2,000 infiltrators currently being held in the Saharonim detention center in the Negev and about 500 are being held in the Givon facility. It costs the state NIS 70 million a year to keep these facilities going. In all of 2009, 4,300 illegal immigrants were caught sneaking across the border and brought to the facilities. In January 2010, there were 886. This points to a dramatic increase in the number of economic migrants. If in 2009 there were 4,300 African economic migrants arriving here, official estimates posit that there are now 1,000 African economic migrants arriving at the Egypt-Israel border every month. At this rate there will be 12,000 at the end of the year.
This number is setting off alarm bells in Jerusalem.
THE PRISONS Service, together with the IDF which is tasked with the initial contact with migrant workers from Africa, prides itself on being a professional body adhering to international standards. But it faces a dilemma: The better the holding facility is, the better the African economic migrants are treated. Concurrently, the more professional their treatment, the higher the motivation of others to come across the border.
Some infiltrators from Africa, when they are caught at the border, ask the IDF soldiers “which way to the [Saharonim] camp?” This camp has gained a reputation of being a relatively comfortable place to start their new lives in the developed world. At Saharonim, infiltrators are given medical care (including dental), blankets, beds, food, education and – once in a while – even sweets.
The vast majority of these illegal migrants get released within 60 days of their initial detention. They are processed by a government committee which determines their status as either refugees, asylum seekers or economic migrants, and put on buses from Saharonim to the central bus station in Beersheba, where they are pretty much left to fend for themselves.
Some of them find work in Tel Aviv restaurants, hotels in Eilat or just walk the streets of Arad looking for odd jobs. They don’t have work permits, but they do have authorization to be in the country. The government is in essence saying to the Israel public that it’s aware of this problem, it’s keeping tabs on it and that it won’t let these foreigners take jobs meant for Israelis.
What the government is saying to the Africans, on the other hand, is “look, you can stay here until we find a legal way to deport you, and while you’re here you can work, but we can’t give you work permits, so stay off the streets and don’t make any trouble until we come and get you.”
When it comes to migrant workers from Eritrea, where there are severe human rights abuses, Israel cannot, under international humanitarian law, send these migrant workers or asylum seekers back. Many young Eritrean men flee the country because they don’t want to serve in the army. Same goes for the Sudanese. By the very fact that they set foot in Israel, they cannot be sent back because Sudan is considered an enemy state, and they may face persecution on their return for visiting the “Zionist entity.” Their very presence here turns them into persona non grata back in their home country.
Israel claims it is under no obligation to hold these migrant workers or asylum seekers as the Jewish state was not their first port of call – Egypt was. The government’s argument is that these people cannot be classified as refugees because they didn’t come here directly from their country of origin, from which they may or may not have fled for humanitarian reasons. Egypt was their first choice of asylum, so under UN laws, Israel is under no obligation to grant them asylum. In Egypt they are relatively safe, or safer than they were in Sudan and Eritrea.
From Egypt they are smuggled across the border by a vast and well-oiled smuggling network called Rashaida, which operates across Africa, and especially in Sudan, Eritrea and the Sinai. Cairo doesn’t want the waves of African economic migrants to settle in Egypt (there is a constant stream of tens of thousands of African migrants crossing through Egypt, with many staying and causing Egypt problems of its own); and the Africans don’t want to stay in Egypt either, where their economic opportunities are not as good as they are in Israel. In Israel, a migrant worker can earn anything up to $1,000 per month.
They’re not coming here for Zionist reasons. They’re not making aliya. They don’t want to convert and they don’t want to stay here. They’d prefer to spend some time here making as much money as they can, and then to move on, preferably to America or Australia. Some even want to go back to where they came from, and some even try steal back across the border for various reasons.
In the eyes of the government, the vast majority of the Africans
smuggled into the country are not refugees. They are migrant workers
looking to improve their lives, first here, and if possible, later in
other countries. What in effect is happening is that because Israel is
the only country one can walk to from anywhere in Africa, and because
some European countries are tightening up their policies, it is
becoming the most attractive destination for Africa’s migrant labor
force. According to reports, Italy has started toughening its
immigration policies regarding African migrant labor, and so now it’s
Israel that they are increasingly coming to.
To some in the
halls of power in Jerusalem, the country is quickly becoming the
America of the Third World, and this thought is finally causing
movement on the immigration policy front.