“We will not change our policies just because we are being pressured, and we
also will not change our policies in order to achieve a fictitious calm that
would harm our national interests,” Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar said
following the protests this week in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem by tens of thousands
of African migrants who have been striking since Sunday.
Sa’ar said that
it was important to understand that most of the “infiltrators” had come to
Israel for economic reasons and not to seek asylum.
In an exclusive
interview with Sof Hashavua, The Jerusalem Post’s sister paper, the interior
minister accused outside bodies of initiating the protests, but did not name
“The infiltrators are not the ones asking for protest permits. They
are not the ones paying for the buses,” Sa’ar said. “There are people who are
trying to use this protest as a way to get the government to change its
policies, and to pressure Supreme Court judges who will be called upon to hear
the appeal these organizations submitted against the new infiltrator law which
was recently passed in the Knesset.”
Why do you think this mass protest
broke out now?
A number of steps were taken recently: The new infiltrator law
was passed, the open detention center in Hulot was opened and infiltrators were
brought there from Tel Aviv. In addition, the financial incentive to
infiltrators who are willing to leave of their own volition was increased, and
they are now being offered $3,500. The smugglers bringing them to the Israeli
border and the organizations helping them once they arrive have also realized
that the government is serious about its intentions to implement its
And they have reacted by carrying out a protest.
the steps the government has taken brought about actual change?
there was a record number of people leaving of their own free will, and so far
we are seeing a similarly large number now in January. Some organizations are
encouraging infiltrators not to leave – to wait and see what will happen. So
these numbers could change any day.
Are you referring to aid
It is legitimate to disagree with government policies. What
infuriates me is when organizations make libelous statements about the State of
Israel and the demonstrations in front of foreign embassies and the verbal
attacks that are carried out in front of the international media cameras. Israel
has nothing to be ashamed of and is coping with this phenomenon just as well as
other Western nations that have dealt with this same issue.
opinion, has the protest harmed Israel’s image in the world?
It’s still too
early to judge how things will turn out in the long run, but our goal is clear.
There are many other nations that are also dealing with illegal immigration –
this is a global phenomenon. Just look at what’s happening in Australia, the US,
Italy and Switzerland.
The question is, have we as a country woken up in
time or are we too late. Just take a look at some European cities and you can
see how quickly and to what extent things have changed there.
think this could happen in Israel too?
We have only one country, and it is my
responsibility to protect our borders. Compared with other countries, the
Israeli government has reacted quickly and efficiently to prevent the
infiltration of more illegal immigrants.
And yet, tens of thousands of
illegal infiltrators have already found their way into Israel. Maybe Israel woke
up too late?
We’ll always be able to say that we could have woken up earlier.
The previous government built a fence along the border with Egypt and also
passed the infiltrator law relatively quickly. These two factors have been very
effective in discouraging illegal immigration.
A few months ago, the High
Court of Justice ruled that the infiltration law, which allowed the government
to keep infiltrators in custody for up to three years, was unconstitutional and
stands in contradiction with the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. In
response, the government shortened the amount of time they could be held to one
year and opened a detention center.
The paradox is that because the law
was successful in carrying out its goal, it was appealed to the High Court. The
real test is to check whether we can uphold judgments even when we don’t agree
The new law took into consideration the High Court’s ruling,
which gave us the tools to deal with this phenomenon. The new infiltrator law
took the ruling and legal advice into consideration.
Do you truly believe
that the fence and the new law will be the solution?
The entire Western world is
dealing with the problem of illegal immigration, but we are the only ones who
share a physical border with Africa. Therefore, if we do not create an extremely
explicit law, we will find ourselves flooded with infiltrators who aspire to
reach a Western country with a high standard of living. On a human level, I
understand their desire to come to Israel, but I am responsible for our entire
nation. I cannot view this situation through the eyes of others.
people claim that we’re not talking about mass migration. Do you have an
estimate of how many people dream about coming to Israel?
According to UN
statistics, tens of millions of Africans are interested in migrating to a
This includes Spain, Italy, France and Israel. If Israel
is considered the country with the most liberal illegal infiltration policy,
then more people will go to Israel than to the other Western countries. Dealing
with many thousands of infiltrators would be much harder and would have more
Asylum-seekers claim that the Israeli
authorities are not checking their requests to recognize them as
Most of the infiltrators have not applied for asylum. According
to our records, there are currently 53,600 infiltrators in Israel, not including
natural growth. Only 1,800 applications for asylum have been submitted. In other
words, only 3.4 percent of infiltrators have requested that they be recognized
as refugees. This is an important indication of the fact that they are not true
refugees, but economic migrants.
How are requests for refugee status
Each request is examined on an individual basis. We check parameters
such as their risk of being persecuted or if their lives are in danger [in their
home countries]. The status of each individual is based on this
The process includes an interview during which the applicant
tells his story in great detail. A special committee which includes
representatives from the Interior, Justice and Foreign ministries, and which is
headed by a legal expert, makes its recommendations and each application is
thoroughly checked. But we will not agree to grant refugee status across the
board to the tens of thousands of people, most of whom according to our
information are migrant workers.
Out of the 1,800 applications that have
been submitted, how many people have been granted refugee status?
A few dozen.
According to our investigations, most of the infiltrators do fulfill
international criteria to receive refugee status. Recently, I was personally
involved in a case in which a person was granted refugee status for humanitarian
We were able to substantiate the story of a Nigerian woman who
submitted an application by speaking with a woman in Nigeria who knew her
The protesters are complaining that not enough clerks are
working on their requests.
We’ve doubled the number of staff and we now
have a team of 60 people working on refugee status.
claim that these people cannot return to their homeland because their lives are
The facts show that this is not true. In December 2013 alone,
300 infiltrators returned of their own free will to Sudan and
Apparently the vast majority of them can return to their
homelands, but the temptation to stay in Israel is very great since they can
make more money in one month of working here than they can make there in more
than two years back home.
Some 300 chose to leave of their own volition –
this is not a very large number.
There are logistical problems that
prevent us from being able to process all the applications and there are
technicalities that also make it a difficult process. And still – since we
doubled the amount of the grant we offer for leaving Israel voluntarily and took
steps to enforce policies, more people have decided to leave. But,
unfortunately, there are organizations that are working to thwart our
Are you working in conjunction with the Eritrean government?
have held a number of meetings with the Eritrean ambassador to Israel. There
have been a number of incidents of harassment, including last month at Kibbutz
Kinneret [when the ambassador was meeting with migrants]. I think there are
people who believe that being opposition leaders would mean a better chance of
receiving refugee status for Eritrean migrants. Organizations that visited
Eritrea to check if the people who returned were safe reported that these
individuals had not been arrested.
Is the idea of finding a third country
which could process Sudanese citizens still viable?
We are still talking with a
third country and when we will have a breakthrough we will publicize this
Are you satisfied with the performance of the Foreign
Israel has only one foreign ministry and our foreign minister
just began his term. All in all, I have been very satisfied with
Everyone knows that this is a matter of utmost national
importance and everyone is making an effort to be of
Asylum-seekers are not the only ones who are
protesting. Restaurateurs and hoteliers also support their
I truly feel for the people and industries that are suffering
due to this wild strike, but I don’t understand why they are blaming the
government. Up until 2006, when the large wave of infiltrators from Africa
began, there were people working in restaurants and hotels.
industries decided for financial reasons to rely on a cheaper work force made up
by migrant workers who entered the country illegally, and can only blame
themselves or their employees who are striking.
This mass protest by
infiltrators was aimed at putting additional pressure on the government by
involving the industries being affected.
You’ve come out very strongly
against restaurateurs. Why?
I cannot accept the fact that they are impugning the
government that is acting in the country’s best interests. I checked the case of
one of the first business owners who expressed his anger at the Israeli
government. And do you know what I found out? Just a few days before then, he
was sued by one of his workers – an infiltrator from Eritrea – who had sued him
for failing to comply with the worker’s terms of employment. The protest by
business owners, as far as I can see, is not based on a moral foundation to say
Would you agree to meet with representatives of asylum-
I have not received any such requests.
Are you prepared in case
the situation escalates?
Up until now, the protest has been carried out
lawfully. This is in their best interests. The Israel Police is prepared for a
variety of situations.
We will continue to carry out our policy with
Since the protest began, you have been at the center of
the struggle. Do you feel the prime minister and the other ministers are being
fully supportive of you in their public statements?
I have received the full
support of the prime minister, the government and the public. From what I’ve
seen, most citizens, regardless of political affiliation, support us and
understand that this is a very difficult situation. They all stand behind us,
even though it might not always seem that way in the media.