The African migrant issue is one of the most “difficult, sensitive and loaded” problems facing Israeli society, and the government must keep working to return them to their own countries or other ones, new Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar said on Tuesday.

Sa’ar’s statement came at the end of a short walking tour he took of Tel Aviv’s Lewinsky Park and the Neve Sha’anan pedestrian mall, which he called his first “working tour” of the unofficial center of the country’s African migrant community.

According to figures that the Population, Immigration and Borders Authority (PIBA) released last week, there were 55,195 African migrants in the country as of the end of February. Of these, 36,436, or 66 percent, are from Eritrea and 13,865, or 25%, are from Sudan. The rest hail from other African countries, according to PIBA.

“I want to clarify that the government policy remains to work to return the illegal infiltrators home to their countries or to third-party countries,” said Sa’ar. “Of course this must be done in keeping with the law and the needs of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”

He stressed, however, that “these are human beings,” arguing that the problem was “not created in one day” and that it was likewise unreasonable to assume that “it can be solved in a single day.”

Still, he conceded that “there is a reality here that the neighborhoods of the South are dealing with – a very difficult reality.”

Surrounding him on his tour were security guards, police, and officers of PIBA’s Oz immigration task force, as well as journalists and both Israeli and African residents of south Tel Aviv.

The minister stopped to speak with Jewish business owners and veteran residents of the area about the changes the neighborhood had undergone in recent years. He did not stop to speak to any African migrants.

One of the store owners, Meir Sasoni, spoke of how his pet food store had suffered and how he had been forced to dismiss several employees. He described the unbearable filth and trash in the neighborhood, as well as the increase in crime. He also expressed skepticism that the new interior minister would change anything.

“The number of ministers who have visited here and told us it will all be all right is basically equal to the number of foreign workers here,” he said. “Every time, there is a different minister promising answers, but there are never any actions.”

Tempers flared periodically during the tour, with a handful of Jewish residents embroiled in verbal altercations with African migrants as Sa’ar continued his tour farther down Salomon Street. At one point, former Strong Israel party list member May Golan spit at an African man and began arguing with several more, and was joined by a fellow protester.

Despite the heated exchange of words, however, the situation did not deteriorate into serious violence.

Before Sa’ar began his tour, a number of migrants gathered at the park in hopes of speaking with him or hearing whether he would strike a different tone than his predecessor Eli Yishai’s with respect to African asylum-seekers.

Bahar Adam, a 30-year-old Darfur native, came to the park on Tuesday, saying he wanted to get across the message that “we’ve suffered persecution and genocide in Darfur and still haven’t gotten refugee status [in Israel].”

Adam, who has lived in Israel for six years since fleeing violence in Egypt, added that he hoped Sa’ar would be different from Yishai and would begin to examine their status requests.

Eritrea-native Dawit Demoz, 25, has lived in the country for three years. At the park on Tuesday, he also expressed hope that Sa’ar would be more sympathetic than Yishai was, adding that “we escaped from a dictatorship and we came to a democratic country in order to save our lives. We don’t want to stay here.”

He asked, “The government calls us infiltrators, but how can you say we’re infiltrators if you haven’t even checked our asylum request?”

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