Earlier this week, Interior Minister Eli Yishai spoke out about the dangers of allowing asylum seekers to enter Israel. Among the risks he cited were claims that foreigners from African countries would introduce diseases like AIDS, hepatitis and tuberculosis among the Israeli population.
Data received Thursday from the Ministry of Health revealed that Yishai had little evidence to back his statement and that the single study that has been conducted on the matter showed a relatively low morbidity rate among asylum-seekers tested.
A study conducted in 2007 in Eilat revealed that among asylum seekers arriving form Africa (mainly from Sudan and Eritrea) only 0.55% tested positive for AIDS and a similar number tested positive for latent syphilis. The tests were conducted on a voluntary basis on 361 refugees.
Out of 820 refugees tested by the Ministry of Health for tuberculosis in 2007, only five were found to be carrying the disease. The ministry spokeswoman told The Jerusalem Post that other tests, which were given to refugees held in the Ketziot detention center in recent years, revealed similar findings.
Tests for salmonella and shigella revealed that only a single person out of 100 tested carried the harmful germs.
"It's important to note that these infiltrators and asylum seekers went through a long, difficult and often dangerous path on their way from their country of origin to Israel. Naturally, only those who are healthy and physically tough can stand the journey," said Health Ministry spokeswoman Einav Shimron-Greenboim.
"Moreover, some of them spent long periods of time in other countries, like Egypt. Thus, it seems as though there is a process of natural selection in this type of immigration and that the morbidity rate among these infiltrators is lower than that which exists in their origin country."
Volunteer organizations that treat asylum seekers in Israel also say they are unaware of widespread disease among the refugee population. There are two organizations that offer medical services to non-documented foreigners, both operating in south Tel Aviv. Together they treat roughly 100 patients a day and both say they were surprised by Yishai's statement, because if there is indeed such a phenomenon, they'd be the ones to know about it.
"In our clinic we treat the same cases you'd find in any other clinic.
We don't have statistics on the types of diseases people come in with, but there is certainly no regular recurrence of the types of symptoms you'd see with these diseases," said Raviv Maizel from the Israeli Medical Association (IMA), which runs a clinic in the central bus station area of Tel Aviv. The clinic, which has been operating for the last year, relies on volunteer doctors and nurses as well as medical students who come in several times a month to help treat the patients.
The IMA also attempted to pass a law, with the aid of several left-wing MKs to have the government include refugees and asylum seekers in the national health insurance plan. The proposal never made it to the Knesset floor because it was believed that the expenses involved would be too high.
"As it is, the Ministry of Health helps us operate our clinic with no special budget," said Maizel. "Anything they can offer us ultimately comes at the expense of other patients."
One organization that receives no help from the government is Physicians for Human Rights. The non-profit organization relies entirely on donations and the good will of their team of volunteer doctors to run their open clinic in Jaffa.
"We have 24,000 patient files and we keep records of every visit. If their was pervasive evidence that infiltrators and asylum seekers bring in diseases, we would be able to tell, but there is nothing that I know of that confirms the fear," said Dr. Ido Lurie, the medical director of the clinic.
Lurie said that in the last couple of years the focus of the clinic shifted from treating mostly uninsured foreign workers to treating the African refugees. He said that while there was no pattern of physical diseases, there was certainly a recurrence of mental illnesses, many of them caused by past traumas - traumas they suffered in their countries of origin, often as a result of war or ethnic cleansing.
In recent weeks the government has been deliberating ways to reduce the inflow of asylum seekers into the country. Various suggestions have been made ranging from a wall across the Egyptian border, to setting up camps where the asylum seekers can stay until their status is determined and they either get recognized as refugees or are sent back to their home countries.
"We in Israel hate to hear the word 'camps' because of the horrific connotations, but there is talk that if they are instituted the people will receive medical treatment from the state. That at least is one positive element of the bizarre suggestion," said Maizel.