Israel is not alone in having to deal with asylum seekers. Since mid-April, the Western media has been full of horrific stories about the drowning of thousands of African migrants trying to reach Europe. They die when their overcrowded, rickety boats operated by greedy human traffickers based in Libya sink in the Mediterranean Sea.
The flood of immigrants seeking employment or asylum in Europe has raised questions concerning that continent’s capacity and will to absorb the huge influx of foreigners coming from Africa. Europeans are sharply divided about how to handle the seemingly endless wave of migrants. Accept more refugees? Restrict their entry? Deport as many as possible? Stop human trafficking? Most Israelis remain indifferent to the fate of the 50,000 African asylum seekers in our country. They know little about their history and culture, where they came from, and why they chose Israel.
Geographical proximity and Israel’s status as a democratic state attracted many Eritreans and Sudanese seeking freedom and protection.
African refugees in Israel emerged as a “problem” over the past decade because very few came here either for work or for asylum before then. Between 1998 and 2004, less than 1,500 African nationals applied for refugee status. Since then, Israel has experienced an alarming rise in illegal asylum seekers entering the country. Large numbers of Sudanese and Eritreans arrived via the Sinai desert in 2007 and 2008. The influx reached its peak when 16,616 asylum seekers entered the country in 2011, bringing the total to 60,000.
Sudanese and Eritreans comprise over 90 percent of the asylum seekers in Israel.
What happened in Sudan and Eritrea to lead so many individuals to endure hardships and risk their lives to come to Israel? Sudan has been ruled by a radical Islamist government since 1989 when Omar al-Bashir seized power in a military coup. The Islamist regime’s efforts to forcibly subjugate and impose sharia law and Arabization on the predominantly Christian and Animist non-Arab populations in southern Sudan touched off a long civil war. The war caused the flight of large numbers of south Sudanese, with the number dropping sharply the after the 2005 peace agreement with rebel groups.
The Sudanese government began its genocide campaign against the non-Arab Muslim populations of Darfur in 2003.
Millions were driven from their homes and placed in refugee camps within Sudan and in neighboring countries. “Save Darfur” campaigns in the West succeeded in pressuring the Bashir regime to reduce the slaughter. Western nations accepted some of the relatively small numbers of Darfurians having the means to get out of Sudan and the burgeoning refugee camps in neighboring countries.
Political conditions were somewhat different in Eritrea where Isaias Afwerki, who led the long battle for independence from Ethiopia, reneged on his promises to create a democratic state. Instead, he established a totalitarian regime widely depicted as the North Korea of Africa.
Afwerki transformed compulsory military service into a system of indefinite involuntary servitude to him and his generals.
As a result, more and more young people left the country to avoid military service despite the risk of being shot, tortured and imprisoned for seeking to escape.
Since 2009, the Israeli government has adopted harsh policies toward African refugees aimed at getting rid of them and buttressed by fear-mongering and misinformation.
The Interior Ministry and immigration authorities have argued that African asylum seekers, especially Eritreans, are really job seekers and not refugees. Why? Migrant job seekers have no legal claim to refugee status and can be deported, especially if they entered illegally. On the other hand, individuals claiming refugee status on the grounds of fleeing from violence and persecution can’t be deported back to their home countries or to third countries against their will in violation of international law.
For evidence that they are truly refugees and not job seekers, one need only look at the hundreds of thousands of Sudanese and Eritreans now living under miserable conditions in UN refugee camps in Africa.
Chad alone houses 400,000 Sudanese; Ethiopia 100,000 Sudanese and 100,000 Eritreans; and Sudan over 100,000 Eritreans.
Nobody denies that those living in these camps are refugees.
Unlike Europe, Israel found a solution to the problem of controlling unrestricted illegal immigration. The completion of a massive fence on the Sinai border Egypt in 2012 has been a huge success. In 2014, less than a hundred asylum seekers made it to Israel.
The fence, combined with policies to make the life of asylum seekers as miserable as possible to encourage “voluntary deportation” has succeeded in reducing their numbers to 50,000.
Although African asylum seekers, who comprise less than one percent of the population, pose no security or demographic threats to Israel, the government still seeks ways to deport them. To justify deportation, Israel must prove that the political conditions that led asylum seekers to leave have improved to the extent that it would no longer be dangerous for them to return.
Sudan is still not a safe place for Darfurian refugees. The UN military contingent has not been very effective in providing protection to those in refugee camps in Sudan. The government’s Rapid Support Forces, formerly known as the Janjaweed militias, continue their ethnic cleansing missions in Darfur, albeit on a smaller scale.
Eritrea is a different matter. We have diplomatic relations with Eritrea and possibly a naval base there. There are rumors that Afwerki is about to reform the military conscription system now enslaving Eritrean youth. However, there is no concrete evidence that reforms are taking place or will take place soon. Outside groups can’t visit Eritrean prisons or roam the country freely to find out the reality on the ground.
The cold facts repudiate the arguments presented by the government to justify policies to rid Israel of its African refugees.
These policies include arbitrarily keeping 2,500 asylum seekers in Holot, a detention center in the Negev desert; refugee acceptance rates of less than 1%; and most recently threatening with prison those refusing to accept “voluntary” deportation to unnamed African countries.
Many Israelis sympathetic to the asylum seekers’ plight hesitate to question Israeli immigration policies. Should Israel not take care of its own people first? The good news is that African asylum seekers if treated fairly can be an asset rather than a burden. When granted refugee status based on the merits of their case and allowed to work legally, they will pay more taxes, support Israel’s public health system, and work in areas where we now have labor shortages. Sudanese and Eritreans in Israel don’t need charity.
They are not asking for citizenship or permanent residency. They ask for freedom and opportunities for honest work.
Current government treatment of African asylum seekers clearly violates time-honored Jewish values, especially those urging us not to wrong the stranger.
Instead of stigmatizing our guests as unwanted “infiltrators,” let’s benefit from their presence to learn about Africa and to remind us that the Jewish people have also been asylum seekers. We Israelis should know better. Let’s work to reform inhumane policies and find solutions reflecting our long history of commitment to compassion, truth and justice.
The author is a Jerusalem-based political scientist and consultant on democracy and development issues in Africa.