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(photo credit: AP [file])
Southern Israel is being inundated with thousands of illegal migrants from Africa, local government and police sources have told The Jerusalem Post, adding that the influx has resulted in a noticeable rise in violence and inter-communal tensions.
In 2008, 7,703 illegal migrants entered the country, up from 5,201 a year earlier, according to police figures obtained by the Post.
In 2006, only 751 illegal migrants crossed into the country, while 502 arrived in 2005. Most enter from Egypt after traveling through the Sinai desert, often led by Beduin smugglers.
So far this year, 1,602 migrants breached Israel's borders, police say. Some 80 percent of migrants who arrived over the past two years hailed from Eritrea, police figures show, and contrary to popular perception, a minority of illegal migrants are Sudanese. Others come from Somalia and the Ivory Coast.
Southern Police District head Cmdr. Yohanan Danino is concerned by the growing crime and violence police have linked to the migrants, and by the lack of solutions being proposed vis-Ã -vis their communal needs in the South.
Eilat Mayor Meir Yitzhak Halevi told the Post that parts of his city "have been conquered by infiltrators."
"With many of the migrants seeking jobs, and some lacking a fixed address, large numbers of the immigrants congregate in parks and sporting fields," Halevi said. "The infiltration is uncontrolled."
"Without wishing to generalize, we have undoubtedly seen an increase in violence among this population. Alcohol-related incidents have grown," he said.
Halevi added that what began as a trickle of migrants who found jobs in Eilat's hotel industry has grown into "a situation which is out of hand. I'd say we have around 3,000 infiltrators in the city. I call them 'infiltrators' because no one knows how to deal with them or what status they should be given."
Halevi lamented "the very bad way" the government has handled the situation, and criticized a decision to keep African illegal immigrants from moving north of Gedera.
"If a sovereign state wants to accept asylum-seekers, and allocate resources for that, I am all for that. But to leave the gate open and let anyone come in, and then to shirk responsibility and leave local authorities to deal with it, is wrong," he said.
"Most are not asylum-seekers fleeing a war zone," a police source told the Post. "Some of them have launched a Web site which details smuggling routes, so that family members and friends can join them in Israel," the source added.
In May, after receiving requests for assistance from local authority heads, Danino convened a meeting with representatives of the IDF, mayors, government officials and welfare workers to discuss ways of dealing with the problem.
He believes that as time passes, police will be increasingly involved in dealing with the migrants, as unsuccessful job seekers turn to crime and alcohol.
In 2008, 160 recorded criminal offenses committed by the migrants took place, while in 2007, 140 incidents were documented.
In Arad, another city illegal migrants have entered in large numbers, tensions between Africans and Beduin have grown, since many Beduin feel economically threatened by a new source of cheap labor, the police source said.
Feuds and violent confrontations between the two groups have erupted in recent years, the source added.
The source said the National Immigration Authority, which has replaced the Immigration Police, had only recently become operational.
The IDF has stepped up attempts in recent weeks to return the migrants to their point of entry, expelling 122 people from Israel since June, soon after they were caught.