Analysis: A worsening situation

Lack of action on migrant workers threatens the social fabric in Tel Aviv.

By RON FRIEDMAN
June 25, 2010 02:30
3 minute read.
illegal workers 248.88

illegal workers 248.88. (photo credit: )

A Tel Aviv city councilman’s recent call for landlords to cease renting apartments to refugees and infiltrators highlights Israel’s difficult relationship with its migrant community.

While some characterized the call as racist, others justify the sentiment behind it. The majority, including the country’s leaders, remain silent.

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The call, issued on Wednesday by Shas councilman Binyamin Babayoff, is just the latest in an ongoing campaign targeting the migrants, organized by residents and representatives of the city’s southern neighborhoods. The campaign blames the migrants of introducing “Filth, violence and crime” to the neighborhoods and accuses Israelis who aid them of hypocrisy.

Over the last three years, an estimated 21,000 people have crossed the border from Egypt looking for asylum here. The migrants, most of them from Sudan and Eritrea, but also from countries like Ghana, Congo, the Ivory Coast and Ethiopia, are arrested upon arrival and when they are released several weeks or months later, they are left to fend for themselves.

While some choose to stay and work in the southern cities of Eilat and Arad, where they tend to find formally illegal, but unofficially tolerated work in the hotel industry, a majority of the migrants end up in Tel Aviv’s southern neighborhoods, places where decades of neglect, unemployment and poverty have lowered rental costs enough for them to be able to afford to stay.

Legal and illegal foreign workers occupy many of the apartments in the neighborhoods and have changed their character drastically in the last decade.

The influx of African migrants has hit the underprivileged neighborhoods hard. Already suffering from a shortage of institutions and services, the residents of the neighborhoods have had to see their schools, parks and community centers be slowly taken over by unfamiliar faces.

Add to that a smattering of vandalism and violent incidents and you have a recipe for cultural antagonism. Mix in  religious comments and appeals to sexual fears and you have a recipe for what some call a xenophobic campaign.

Those who have come out against the anti-migrant campaign reside outside these neighborhoods. The same people who spend time and money helping out the migrants and advocating for them don’t actually live with or next to them,  nor have their neighborhoods changed because of their arrival.

This makes it easy for Babayoff and his supporters to brush away their criticism, claiming that they are nothing but hypocrites and challenging them to take the migrants into their own neighborhoods.

While it may be easiest to dismiss Babayoff and his supporters as a fringe minority, the roots of the problem are  deeper and wider. The fact that Babayoff has enlisted to his campaign rabbis from the southern neighborhoods and other central synagogues, hints that what’s at issue here is more than just the neighborhoods’ aesthetics; that the deeper issue is ethnic and religious concerns.

That Babayoff is from Shas is also telling, especially given that Shas’s national chairman, Eli Yishai, has made  recurring statements against the African migrant population. Earlier this year, Yishai said that the migrants introduced diseases, drugs and crime into Israeli society.

Shas has a strong constituency in Tel Aviv’s southern neighborhoods and the party’s traditional platform of aiding the underprivileged has gained much resonance among the long-neglected residents.

Another politician that enjoys great popularity in the southern neighborhoods is Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. His appeal as ‘a man of the people,’ was first generated by walking through the stalls and mingling with the merchants of Hatikva Market.

The current government has talked tough abut curbing the influx of migrants from across the Egyptian border and the dangers of millions of economic migrants just waiting to cross over, but has actually done little to change anything. Earlier this week, reports surfaced that the construction of the wall scheduled to be erected along the Egyptian border no later than July 31, will be delayed by at least three months.

The Interior Ministry’s reluctance to provide the asylum-seekers with any sort of permanent status, makes it illegal for employers to hire them; as a result, turn to black market jobs or crime in order to sustain themselves. Lack of any government welfare funds for the migrant population does nothing to help their peaceful integration.

Dozens, if not hundreds of debates have been held by the Knesset and the cabinet and various forms of ministerial committees, but on the ground, the situation is rapidly worsening. Aid organizations warn that unless a comprehensive immigration policy is put in place, things will only get worse.


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