African migrants at Lewinsky Park in Tel Aviv, January 9, 2014..
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post))
Last Wednesday, over 10,000 African migrants protested outside the Knesset, calling for recognition of their refugee status in order to safeguard their ability to stay and work legally in the country. In response to the recent passage of a law enabling the detention of migrants without valid visas, the heavy hand of an international community of critics swiftly admonished Israel for its alleged inhumanity.
Chief among them, the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees issued a strongly worded statement claiming that Israel’s detention policy is not in line with a 1951 world treaty on the treatment of refugees. At the heart of the issue – and what begs further examination – is just what constitutes a refugee.
From a global perspective, immigration is unquestionably a hot-button political issue and one with which many countries – including the US – continue to struggle. So why is it that Israel is subject to stricter scrutiny for its policies on migration? All too often the international community relishes the opportunity to find fault in Israel’s polices.
Since 2006, approximately 60,000 migrants from Sudan and Eritrea have entered Israel illegally, passing through other countries along the way. Are they truly refugees seeking political asylum, or are they job-seekers who have landed in Israel in search of greater economic opportunity? Is it possible that they are both?
As the international community continues to evaluate Israel’s need to absorb the influx of migrants, perhaps the same standards, and equal pressure, should be applied to neighboring countries. While there is no denying that Israel currently faces both internal and external challenges as a nation, being forced to absorb a growing community of migrants that comprise a large percentage of Israel’s overall population has the potential to place an enormous and undue economic burden on the already existing socioeconomic constraints facing a country the size of New Jersey.
Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of political opinion, one thing is certain: before making allegations about Israel’s inhumanity, it is important to recognize that the strong history between Israel and Africa neither starts nor ends with the issue of migrants. Israel’s intrinsic commitment to upholding human rights and longstanding history of contributing to foreign aid across Africa cannot be ignored. Mashav, Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation in the Foreign Ministry, and Israel- based nonprofit groups alike are just some of the ongoing examples of that steadfast commitment.
Ultimately, the issues of migration and international development are inextricably linked. As opportunities expand and living conditions improve throughout Africa, the economic pressure to migrate decreases.
On the very same day that 20,000 people protested in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, Israel-based organizations like Innovation: Africa were on the ground in Ethiopia, Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda, working to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of African women, men and children.
Using Israeli solar technology, Innovation: Africa provides schools and medical clinics with solar power to offer evening study, well-lit nighttime medical care and refrigeration of vaccines.
Their solar-powered water pumps provide over 20,000 liters of clean water a day, and their drip irrigation systems provide a source of food and annual income for farmers and their families. Since 2008, over 500,000 people have benefited from their work, and over 300,000 children have received properly stored vaccinations for the first time, stored in their solar-powered refrigerators.
This year, Innovation: Africa completed the Damani Primary School in South Africa, powering its classrooms, administrative office and school hall.
In partnership with South Africa’s Department of Education and other local non-governmental organizations, Innovation: Africa worked with community leaders to set up a business to ensure the project’s sustainability.
Because light bulbs and batteries need to be replaced and system components need repair, the school sells raw materials to women in the community and trains them in the skills needed to make and sell shoes from that material. The shoes are then sold locally, and the income generated from the business provides the Damani Primary School with a source of income that covers their maintenance costs, ensuring that students will be able to study and learn by the light of Israeli solar technology for years to come.
The right to an education, the right to clean water, and the right to properly stored vaccinations are all basic human rights, and they were made possible through Israeli innovation and implementation. As NGOs and the Israeli government continue to contribute technical assistance to Africa by delivering technology, training experts and bringing Africans to Israel to learn sustainable approaches that can be brought back to their home countries, Israel continues to be at the forefront of change in Africa. Where is the inhumanity in that?
While the life-saving work being done by Mashav and groups like Innovation: Africa may not be the immediate answer to how the Israeli government should address the issue of migrants, it is an unequivocal demonstration of Israel’s long-term humanitarian investment in the health and well-being of the people of Africa. So as the international community weighs in and casts stones, it might behoove everyone to look under the rock for the whole story.The author is a senior writer for a leading global women’s health organization. She previously led global advocacy efforts focused on reproductive health and rights for an international committee of a UN agency. A lawyer by training, she served as senior legislative counsel to a member of the United States House Foreign Affairs Committee.