The city of Eilat launched a widespread anti-migrant campaign on Tuesday, calling on the government to take action against the influx of African migrants to the city and threatening to “close the city,” if a timely solution is not found.
The municipality hung 1,500 red flags around the city as a sign of warning and put up hundreds of banners reading: “Protecting our home, the residents of Eilat are drawing the line on infiltration.”
In recent years Eilat has been the first stop of many African migrants who crossed the border and it is estimated that the city holds more than 5,000. Eilat hotels have been a major employer of the migrants, but due to a recent cabinet decision, the hotels will soon no longer be allowed to hire them.
At a press conference, Eilat Mayor Meir Yitzhak Halevi, said that the city was launching a month-long battle and that January 11, 2011, will be marked as the day that the residents of Eilat took a stand against infiltrators.
Halevi said that 10 percent of the city’s population was currently made up of migrants and that the residents feel that the city has been conquered.
Halevi said that the protest was not racist in nature, adding that only 2% of the migrants are refugees, while the rest hadn’t experience persecution in their homelands.
A press release issued by the municipal spokeswoman described a series of escalating measures that will be taken in the weeks to come. Within a month of hanging up the red flags, they will be replaced by black flags, after which residents will link up to make a human chain along the Egyptian border. The protests will culminate with a full closure of the city, by blocking off the entrances to the city.
“Today, 11/1/2011, Eilat embarks on the battle for our homes and demands its right and ability to exist, while demanding that the government expel thousands of illegal infiltrators outside of city limits,” read the press release.
Nachum Siri, a city councilman and an activist on the anti-migrant taskforce, said that the campaign wasn’t against the migrants themselves but against the inaction of the government, which, he said, had abandoned the residents of the city.
Siri said that the decisions that the government has made, namely the decision to erect a fence along the border, the decision to build a detention center to house incoming migrants and the decision to forbid the migrants from working, were appropriate, but that the residents wanted concrete solutions to their concerns.
“People know Eilat as a city for leisure and recreation, but there are 60,000 people who live here in the neighborhoods outside of the hotel district, people who you don’t ordinarily see during the taxi ride between the airport and the beachside resort,” said Siri.
“I represent some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, where the elderly and underprivileged reside. It is there that you will also see the masses of migrants, crammed 10 in a room and loitering in the streets at all hours of the day and night. It’s reached a stage where some people are afraid to go out. I’m not saying that they [the migrants] are all intimidating or disorderly, but there is a constant overbearing atmosphere of a hostile takeover of the city.”
When asked if he was concerned about what such a campaign would do to the image of the city, Siri said he was more concerned about the wellbeing of the residents than of Eilat’s image in the eyes of visitors and tourists.
“The hotels belong to the city, not the other way around. In the balance of things I care more about the residents than the hoteliers,” he said.
“It is up to the government to take action on this issue. It’s not our job to find a solution to what is essentially a national problem,” said Siri. “I am worried that if they don’t, a disaster will occur, people will take the law into their own hands.”
The Hotline for Migrant Workers warned of violence and incitement, noting that there have already been two incidents of violence in recent weeks, one an attempted arson of an Ashdod apartment housing African migrants and the other a beating of two African teenage girls in Tel Aviv.
“We also plan to investigate the use of public funds by the mayor used to promote a racist campaign,” said the group’s spokeswoman.
Oded Feller, legal council for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel said that many in the Eilat migrant population are reporting harassment and fear violence. According to Feller, the primary source of the residents’ plight is the government, which refuses to examine the asylum claims of Sudanese and Eritrean nationals, who make up the majority of the migrant population.
“We are told that they are all economic migrants, but the asylum claims
of this significant group, who are internationally recognized as
refugees, never get examined. Failure to recognize them as refugees
prevents them from receiving legal status that would allow them to
integrate into society and legally work anywhere in the country. To
sustain themselves, they are forced to take the jobs that they are
offered and the hotels in Eilat offer them jobs. The residents and Eilat
Municipality should direct their claims towards the government, which
instead of supporting the city and providing it with the tools to cope
with the new population, abandoned them,” Feller said.