The southern city of Arad hosted a special joint meeting of the Knesset’s Internal Affairs and Environment and Foreign Workers committees on Thursday. The MKs came to Arad to see and hear firsthand the impact felt in the city by the arrival of African asylum seekers, as part of deliberations over the proposed Infiltrators Prevention Bill.
Eight MKs arrived in Arad on Thursday morning accompanied by their staff, reporters and representatives of refugee aid groups. They were met by Arad Mayor Gideon Bar-Lev, city council members, municipality officials and residents.
Following introductions and a brief meeting at city hall, the MKs boarded their minibus and began a tour of the city, focusing primarily on educational institutions.
Arad has been a magnet for asylum seekers, since the phenomenon of people jumping the border from Egypt first began roughly three years ago. Its southern location and the availability of jobs in nearby Dead Sea resorts made it a natural choice. Regulations in place until recently, limiting asylum seekers to living south of Gedera or north of Hadera, also made Arad a prime location.
“The rush to Arad has slowed down since the government canceled the Hadera-Gedera regulations, but we still carry a disproportional role in terms of the amount of migrants compared to other cities,” said Bar-Lev.
At Avishor Elementary School the MKs heard from the principal about the challenges of absorbing children of asylum seekers into the classrooms. In order to spread out the burden evenly, every school received a share of these children. Each of the four elementary schools in the city has taken in 12 to 15 students.
“All the students are equal as far as we’re concerned, but we have received complaints about the inclusion of the migrants’ children from some of the parents of our students,” said principal Yafa Ninio.
“In a meeting with parents of kindergarten children who will be entering the school next year, several people asked about the effect of the migrant children on the school. I was led to believe that the number of foreign children would influence the parents’ decision on where to send their kids.”
Ninio explained that the migrant children often needed special assistance and extra tutelage and that without additional funding from the Education Ministry, the extra attention necessarily came at the expense of other students.
Another problem Ninio identified was the lack of regular communication with the parents of African children. “The parents work long hours, and often don’t speak Hebrew or English. The result is poor relationships between the school and the parents,” said Ninio.
When asked how Israeli children got along with the migrant children, Ninio said that they generally got along well and could tell of no serious social problems.
After the visit to the elementary school, the MKs visited a special kindergarten for migrant children. The kindergarten was opened last year, solely for migrant children. It serves as an absorption center for the children, preparing them to enter elementary school.
The children greeted the MKs with songs and dances. All the activities in the classroom are held in Hebrew. The children sang a Naomi Shemer classic.
The kindergarten teacher also complained of lack of parental involvement and a shortage of funding. The parents pay for the transportation and provide the children with lunches, but don’t pay school fees, so the class is wholly subsidized by the city.
The third stop on the tour was to a day care center for mothers and infants. The center, funded by the migrant community and aid organizations, is located in a rundown apartment in an old, neglected building.
At the day care, the MKs spoke to some mothers, asking them about their sources of income. One mother explained that their husbands worked at the Dead Sea resorts.
Committee chairman David Azoulay (Shas) expressed surprise that the asylum seekers had work permits, until it was explained to him that while they don’t have work permits, the government turns a blind eye to their employment so that they have a source of income to support themselves.
After the tour, the MKs returned to city hall to hear from experts and conclude discussions. They heard from a southern command captain, who said that since the beginning of the year 1,350 asylum seekers were captured by the IDF.
The Committee also heard from a local police representative who said that the majority of crimes committed by the migrant population is limited to domestic violence and that no violent or property crimes have been registered against them.
When asked by MK Fain Kirschenbaum (Israel Beiteinu) whether the presence of the migrant community affected the personal security of the city’s residents, the officer said that they have received complaints from residents who said they were disturbing the peace, but nothing more serious than that. Bar-Lev interjected, saying that no one feared to walk the streets in Arad, day or night.
In their concluding remarks, all the MKs said it was high time Israel constructed a fence on the southern border to limit the illegal entrance of infiltrators, urging the government to do so quickly. They also spoke about the need to distinguish between bona fide refugees and those entering Israel looking for jobs.
“Israelis are merciful and sympathetic and that’s good, but I think we’ve gone crazy. I know no other country that doesn’t have a border,” said Kadima MK Arieh Bibi. “There are 3 million people in Egypt just waiting for a text message that says they should jump the border. We heard how many people the army catches, but how many do they miss?”
Likud MK Miri Regev said she was concerned over the demographic threat that the asylum seekers posed. “It is vital to differentiate the refugees from the economic migrants. Those we determined to be refugees should receive the best treatment we can give them. We cannot just throw them in Israel’s backyard to places like Arad,” said Regev. “I am determined to pass this bill as fast as possible.”
Likud MK Carmel Shama spoke along the same vein. “The most important thing is that the burden be bared equally. The people who are against the law sit comfortably in their northern Tel Aviv apartments and don’t have to deal with the actual facts on the ground,” said Shama. “Israel is not big enough or strong enough to solve Africa’s problems.”
Azoulay concluded the session by calling on the government to better gauge and control the number of asylum seekers entering Israel and advising to set up a quota of refugees before the bill is passed.
Kuc-Manyang, the president of the South Sudan Union for Refugees in
Israel, said the MKs had the wrong impression of Sudanese asylum
seekers. He said that the MKs and many in the public considered them
dangerous, when in fact they were quite helpless. “We cannot return to
our country because we risk being killed. Here we are treated unfairly.
The Sudanese population in Arad is made up of 450 people and all of
them are families. The people work so hard that they just come home to
sleep. We are not dangerous,” said Manyang.