The real tragedy is not taking place in Tel Aviv. It’s taking place thousands of kilometers further south – in Africa. That is where most of the illegal migrants arriving in Israel come from.

What they are escaping depends on who they are and what part of the continent they are running from. A large number are desperate to get away from the civil wars in places like Eritrea and Sudan, particularly the Darfur region. Others are seeking a life far from the dire poverty of their homelands; they are making the dangerous trek from places as far away as Chad, Congo and the Ivory Coast.

It’s not hard to understand why they come – even if life in the Promised Land is far from what they thought it would be. It’s natural to feel sympathy for these people.

It is also easy to understand why the local residents of Israeli towns and neighborhoods feel threatened by the influx of the migrant men, most of them single, who pass the time hanging out, getting drunk and who will almost inevitably turn to petty (and not so petty) crime as they lack an income or any means of support.

In the past, the Israeli media tended to lump them together under the term “Sudanese refugees,” just as – to the bane of many English-speaking new immigrants – olim from places far apart as Australia, South Africa, Canada and Britain are all collectively known in Hebrew as “Anglo-Saxim,” or (even worse, in the opinion of some) “Amerikai’im.”

What to call the “Africans” was the topic of a lively discussion at a Jerusalem Post editorial meeting last week, reflecting also a change in perception in Israel in general: The majority of Post staffers present opted for the neutral “migrants”; the government largely refers to them as “infiltrators,” since nearly all of them covertly crossed the border from Egypt; some journalists continue to call them “illegal immigrants”; and others stick them in the same category as “foreign workers” who have overstayed their visas and their official welcome.

It’s not simply a question of semantics. Nothing is simple about the plight of these migrants, many of whom themselves fall prey to abuse. The change in the way they are referred to is the result of different terms of reference. These are no longer mainly refugees clearly escaping war. They are economic migrants. And there is a growing number of them.

At the weekly cabinet meeting last week, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said, “There are now 60,000 illegal infiltrators; [this] could easily grow to 600,000 illegal infiltrators.

This would inundate the state and, to a considerable degree, cancel out its image as a Jewish and democratic state.”

Playing on the government’s mind, too, is the fact that among the genuine refugees could be war criminals on the run and even operatives of al- Qaida-affiliated terror cells.

They are definitely, unlike the “Anglos,” not Zionists in the classic sense – drawn to building the Jewish homeland in Zion. Nor are they like the Jewish immigrants from Ethiopia – driven by a similar dream – whose absorption in Israel has been marred by difficulties but whose arrival in the airlifts of Operation Solomon and Operation Moses was considered nothing short of miraculous and continues to be a source of national pride.

In an article five years ago entitled “The Sudanese dilemma,” I wrote: “No one denies the tragedy.

What is at stake is very clear. What to do about it is far from clear-cut. Should Israel, the refuge and safe haven of Jews worldwide, take in all those who arrive against the odds at its southern border – some 60 to 70 a day – and provide asylum because this is its moral obligation? Or is Israel endangering its very existence and essence as a Jewish state by taking in a tide of infiltrators – mostly Muslim – many undoubtedly fleeing some form of persecution, a minority trying to find a better home than they left in Africa?” I wrote the article in July 2007. Since then, the numbers have increased way beyond “some 60 to 70 a day.” According to the Population, Immigration and Borders Authority, 2,931 migrants illegally entered Israel in the final month of 2011, although the numbers have dropped this year as progress is made in constructing a fence along the Egyptian border to keep them out.

In the late 1970s, the country opened its doors and hearts to scores of “boat people,” escaping war-ravaged Vietnam. Then-prime minister Menachem Begin was obviously moved by their fate, so reminiscent of that of Jews in the Holocaust trapped on ships like the infamous St. Louis, with no safe harbor in sight and only death awaiting them if they made it back to the shores of their former homeland.

It was a genuine humanitarian act toward people in genuine need of asylum.

In 2012, we must be careful not to lose that empathy with the plight of those with nowhere to go. But open-mindedness does not necessarily mean open borders for all.

With the passing years, I wonder more than ever whether we are actually addressing the real problem.

Instead of arguing about what to do with the victims of civil war, poverty and possibly even climate change, it would be better to tackle the problems at source.

The refugees are not just an Israeli problem and Israel alone cannot provide a refuge for the millions of people with whom we do not even have a common border.

The global community needs to do more to help prevent the refugee crisis where it is taking place – in Africa.

Programs like the Foreign Ministry’s MASHAV (Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation) offer training around the world in areas including agriculture, medicine and education.

To paraphrase the tired cliché, they teach citizens how to fish and more importantly – Israeli-style – how to breed the fish in ponds in the desert.

A number of the migrants should undergo training programs in Israel that could help them – and their own countries – when they return. Those who are truly in need of asylum should receive it and be allowed to stay and work legally. Instead of granting permits to more foreign workers arriving from places like the Philippines and Thailand, these African migrants could receive at least temporary permits. But part of the solution lies in repatriation or expulsion – the term depends on how you look at it (and I presume, also, on whether or not you are the one being forced to move).

Those against expelling the migrants usually cite the poor economic conditions and threat of war in their countries of origin. This, again, underscores the difference between the migrants arriving here and the immigrants.

Most of us “Anglos” left more luxurious lifestyles – knowing we were heading for a country with military conscription and, on average, a war a decade with terrorist outrages and missile attacks in between. We did it because we felt this is home and wanted to contribute to building it and making it a better place for future generations.

The tragedy of the migrants is that however tough, the conditions in Israel and elsewhere in the West are vastly better than those they left “at home.” Our duty is not just to make sure that their basic needs are met here, but that they can one day see hope for a better future in the countries they left.

The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post. liat@jpost.com

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