Threats to deport thousands of African refugees, asylum seekers and infiltrators are only populist talk and essentially baseless, as long as Israel is still party to an international convention on refugee rights, nonprofit organizations working with the migrant community contended Monday.

Representatives of the Hotline for Migrant Workers (HMW) and Kav L’Oved (the workers’ hotline) responded to various comments made on Monday by politicians and officials to address the question of what Israel should do with an estimated 50,000 foreigners, mostly from Africa, who have entered the country illegally over the past few years.

“At the moment Israel cannot deport them, because if we send them back to where they have come from then we are endangering lives,” said Sigal Rozen, HMW public policy coordinator.

She pointed out: “MKs Michael Ben-Ari [National Union], Ophir Akunis [Likud], Danny Danon [Likud] and others spoke in the Knesset today about the need to deport everyone – but [Interior Minister] Eli Yishai [Shas] has already deported all those who can be forced to leave legally.”

Rozen was referring to an emergency hearing of the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers, which was held Monday to discuss an alarming spurt in violent crimes in neighborhoods where there is a large population of African migrants. Knesset members at the meeting slammed the government’s policy on what it calls foreign “infiltrators” and demanded that a solution be found immediately.

MKs such as Ben-Ari, Akunis and Danon said they were already in the process of drafting legislation that would see thousands of the migrants deported over the next few years.

Earlier in the day, Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, speaking at a gathering of legal representatives in Eilat, said the government was already working to eliminate the “scourge” from the country.

He said the fence along the Egyptian border, which aims to stop more Africans from entering Israel, was close to completion and that a facility in the South to house those here illegally was in the process of being built. Neeman also indicated that the government has been holding diplomatic talks with some African countries to find a way to return illegal migrants, and was looking into other countries as an option for deportation.

According to Rozen, however, because Israel is party to the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, it is highly unlikely that thousands of people can legally be deported to countries such as Eritrea or Sudan, where their lives might be in danger. She said that out of the 50,000 people termed by the government as “infiltrators,” at least 33,000 are from Eritrea and a further 15,000 hail from Sudan.

“In most Western countries that have experienced an influx of Eritreans and who have checked their status, 88 percent were recognized as refugees according to the international convention,” said Rozen.

Israel does not check the refugee status of two groups, she said: The Eritreans due to lack of resources and the Sudanese since they come from an “enemy” country.

“The solution is to help them find work here so they do not end up living in overcrowded apartments in poor neighborhoods,” stated Rozen, referring to a specific neighborhood in south Tel Aviv that is now densely populated with African migrants.

She added that conditions in such neighborhoods are not only unbearable for the refugees – who have no work, educational framework or social support – but also for the native Israelis.

“I do not blame them for being angry about it,” said Rozen of those living among thousands of Africans. “It is not that they are racist, it is just that the current situation helps no one.”

She said that while the government and politicians are busy blaming the Africans for the problem, it is a clear lack of policy and programs to help these refugees that is creating tension.

This was brought to the fore by a rash of highly publicized rapes and other violent crimes over the past few weeks attributed to African men. Many residents of the mixed neighborhoods have begun to express fear about living near the migrant community and there have been several attacks against the Africans.

Noa Kaufman, coordinator of refugees and asylum seekers for Kav L’Oved, said the situation was bound to explode at some point and that many of the migrants have little or no choice but to turn to petty crime just to “stay alive.”

However, she pointed out that most of the migrants were peaceful people who were just looking for a better life – with many managing to find work.

Kaufman added that many of the foreigners were victims of crimes themselves and that crime rates among the general population were higher than among the Africans.

“All those who are speaking about deporting these people have never actually spoken to them, they just are just demagogues using the issue for political gain,” she said. “They are sadly taking advantage of what has happened to some Israeli women in order to create a policy that will get rid of the African population. It is purely populistic and shameful.”

On Monday, opposition leader and Labor chairwoman Shelly Yacimovich also criticized the government’s policies towards the African community and charged Cmdr. (res.) Moshe Mizrahi, former head of the Israel Police Investigations Branch, with proposing policies for dealing with the migrants.

Mizrahi said: “The personal safety of Israeli citizens has been undermined, privatized and abandoned, and this must be examined irrespective to the illegal migrants.”

“The attempt to blame illegal migrants from Sudan and Eritrea for the rise in crime is idiotic and plays into the hands of xenophobia and forces interested in stoking extremist nationalist sentiment,” he added.

Yaakov Lappin, Lahav Harkov and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.

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