African migrants painted in white hold signs during a protest against the Israeli government's plan to deport part of their community, in front of the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya, Israel February 7, 2018.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Though only eight months on the job, Prof. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, Director General of the Population and Immigration Authority at the Interior Ministry, looked and sounded tired when he addressed members of the Jerusalem Press Club on Monday.
It was clear that he was not exactly enthusiastic about government policy vis-à-vis the deportation of African immigrants.
But, preempting any questions about racism, he immediately pointed out that policy regarding people who had entered the country illegally applies equally, regardless of whether they are African, European or anything else.
As an example he cited a case from the previous day when 20 people from Moldova were turned back almost as soon as they arrived.
“It’s our responsibility to convince illegals to leave,” he said, adding that there was nothing new in the fact that “the State of Israel does not welcome every person.”
Asylum seekers who came from Eritrea and Sudan crossed the border illegally, passing through several countries and the Sinai desert to get to Israel, he said, but between 75%-80% are unmarried, working age men who have obviously come to improve their financial circumstances and, unlike those from Darfur, cannot be classed as refugees.
Most are in the country for seven or eight years and still have the option of applying for extensions on their temporary residence visas, he emphasized.
Mor-Yosef dismissed media reports about applicants waiting in line not just for hours but for days and not being able to get inside the door of the office.
They had plenty of time during a seven-to-eight-year period, he said.
The only good news he had to impart was that families will not be deported. Children in such families will be entitled to education and health benefits, and adults to the basic wage and other rights as well as emergency medical services.
Asked why Israel is importing Chinese and Thai workers when the Africans are already here, Mor-Yosef replied that African immigrants who are permitted to work have no limitations on the jobs they take whereas the Chinese are limited to construction and the Thais to agriculture.
The Africans don’t want these jobs, he said.
Citing both African and non-African figures for visa extension applications, Mor-Yosef said that in the past five years there have been more than 40,000 applications. Of these, there were 51 from Ukraine in 2014; 703 in 2015; 6,880 in 2016; and 7,711 in 2017. There were 27 applications by immigrants from Georgia in 2014 and 3,668 in 2016. Combined figures for immigrants from Eritrea and Sudan were 3,264 in 2013; 2,106 in 2014; 4,748 in 2015; 2,628 in 2016; and 2,654 in 2017.
This means that in 2016, 160% more Ukrainians and 40% more Georgians applied than both Eritreans and Sudanese combined.
Conceding that the policy could have been different – and implying that it could have been more humane – Mor-Yosef said that he had to abide by government policy which has also been approved by the Supreme Court.
“I’m not comfortable on a personal level, because these are human beings and there is a dilemma,” he said.
“I’ve had it all my life,” he elaborated, referring to the long period in which he had been a hospital administrator and had to decide, for example, which of four patients could have two available beds. And, in his capacity as chairman of the board of the National Institute for Health Policy Research, it bothered him that essential life-saving medications were omitted from the healthcare basket, because that meant that so many people would continue to suffer.
“This tension exists all the time in public service, and every government decides where to draw the line.”
While acknowledging that life is better in Israel for most of the Africans than anywhere else – other than in Canada, which is one of the places “which has a welcoming policy” and where a thousand of them went last year – he disputed media reports claiming that Israel is sending African deportees to their deaths.
“We are not sending people to death,” he declared, adding that around 40% of those who left of their own accord had opted to return to their countries of origin.
Mor-Yosef was adamant that after large scale deportations begin in April, there will be no trucks going through the country forcefully uprooting illegal immigrants from their places of hiding. “That will definitely not happen,” he pledged.