(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The cabinet’s decision Sunday to begin taking active steps toward stopping the
infiltration of African migrants from across the Egyptian border (passed with
only two objections) reflects a vital imperative, one that previous governments
failed to address altogether.
However, in its rush to protect the country
from a perceived threat to its demographic Jewish character, the government must
take care not to compromise Israel’s moral Jewish character by abandoning
commitments to human rights and denying protection for those in genuine need.
And it shouldn’t mislead the public into thinking that its latest measures will
solve the migrant problem.
The government’s plan, as presented by Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu earlier this week, consists of four major elements:
building a physical barrier along the southern border, enforcing the prohibition
on employment of migrants, building a holding facility to house illegal migrants
and entering agreements with other countries to absorb those migrants who
already reside in the country.
The government passed the decision to
build a physical barrier along its southern border in August and can only be
criticized for waiting for so long before commencing construction. The barrier
will go a long way towards reducing the influx of migrants, which is estimated
at roughly 1,200 people a month.
The next two elements, the construction
of the new housing facility and enforcing regulations against employers of
migrants, go hand in hand and have to do with reducing the economic incentives
for the migrants to come here. The government has stated that it won’t begin
enforcement against employers until the facility is up and running, out of
concern for the sustenance of the migrant population; until the state can
provide the migrants with an alternative means to meet their basic physical
needs of food, shelter and medical treatment, it doesn’t have the legal or moral
right to forbid them to work.
What should give the public pause is the
adequacy of the center to meet the needs of all the migrants already in the
country, never mind those who will enter in the six months it will take to build
the facility. By the government’s own reckoning, there are more than 30,000
African migrants currently in Israel. It is unclear, to put it mildly, how a
center planned to house 10,000 people will cater to the needs of 30,000
The intended solution, apparently, lies in the
fourth element of the plan, reaching out to African countries in hopes that they
might be willing to take in the migrants that Israel wants to expel. While the
prime minister has instructed the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs to negotiate with African governments, there are few who expect
any country to take in a significant number. Many countries have their own share
of refugee problems, without taking on Israel’s.
The government also
risks misleading the public when it refers to the facility as an “open housing
According to the proposal that the ministers voted on, the
facility will only remain “open” pending legislation of the Anti Infiltration
Bill, after which it will be for all intents and purposes a prison for people
who violated the entrance law.
The government is also in danger of
believing its own spin and assuming that all those arriving in Israel are
economic migrants and not refugees or legitimate asylum
Furthermore, one only has to hear of the horrors that many of
the migrants suffer on their way to Israel – including beatings, starvation,
torture and rape at the hands of the Beduin smugglers – to realize the
determination that the migrants have to get to Israel. Anyone who is not scared
off by those dangers will not likely be swayed from coming when told they will
not be allowed to work.
EVERY COUNTRY has the right to determine who
enters its borders, and Israel as a sovereign state has the authority to deny
entrance from those who wish to harm or take unlawful advantage of its
resources. But as a signatory to the United Nations conventions on refugees and
as a society made up of former refugees, which seeks to be a light unto the
nations, Israel must think long and hard before committing to a course that
could cause it to compromise its values.
And the government should not
present as an ostensible panacea the belated construction of a proper border
fence, an inadequate new holding facility and talks with foreign governments on
taking over our problem. The fence should long since have been completed, the
holding facility is no quick fix and the negotiations with other countries will
likely lead nowhere.