Tackling the tide

The government attempts to come to grips with the flood of migrants slipping into Israel via the porous Egyptian border.

Refugees 521 (do not publish again) (photo credit: Flash 90)
Refugees 521 (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Flash 90)
IN JUNE 1977, AN ISRAELI cargo ship plying Far Eastern waters rescued a boatload of five and a half dozen frightened Vietnamese citizens fleeing the communist regime that two years earlier had taken over the south. It was a time when countries were closing their doors to the so-called “boat people” and when tales abounded – true or not – of vessels under other flags choosing to ignore leaky, overloaded boats that later foundered with major loss of life.
It also came exactly after elections had sent the Labor party packing for the first time in Israel’s 29-year history. By the time the cargo ship docked at its home port, the country’s prime minister was Menachem Begin, reviled as a former terrorist by much of the world, which feared where he and his right-wing Likud would now take the Jewish state.
Although just about everyone who knew him personally – friend and foe alike – said he was a truly decent and humane man, it was no secret that the savvy Begin knew a public relations bonanza when he saw one. Not only could these 66 refugees remain, he declared, but they could have full citizenship, too, making it the first time Israel granted asylum en masse to people who neither claimed a Jewish past nor sought a Jewish future.
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Back then, in the summer of 1977, Israel was a very different country. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and the peace process had not yet showed up at the airport. The economy was lumbering, tightly controlled and socialist – living conditions were relatively simple and it took years for a Communications Ministry technician to show up with that phone you ordered. “Start-up” was something a kibbutznik did to his tractor each morning.
Unemployment was still relatively low and among the citizenry the reigning attitude towards the Vietnamese was something like, “If these people want to live in an agrarian, war-scarred and bureaucracy-ridden nation with its strange Hebrew language and even stranger Jewish customs, it’s OK with me.”
It was so OK, in fact, that by the end of the decade, Israel had taken in several hundred more, making this the world’s largest absorption of boat people relative to the host country’s population (and paving the way for perhaps the greatest proliferation of Asian restaurants the country has known).
Eventually, many of the Vietnamese and their offspring relocated to other countries, primarily the United States. But three decades on, if you look closely at some of the young people wearing army uniforms or smart fashions and chattering in the most up-to-date Hebrew slang while sipping lattes grandes in trendy Tel Aviv coffee bars, you’ll note the facial features, primarily around the eyes, of Israelis who can trace their lineage to a tropical hamlet where people still probably tend rice paddies and water buffalo.
And if you listen closely, there’s a good chance they’ll be talking – like most Israelis – about another migration now taking place, this one originating a lot closer but involving much bigger numbers and the potential for a much greater impact on the future of a society now debating its ethnic and religious future.
IN THE PAST FOUR YEARS, MORE than 35,000 Africans have slipped into Israel across the porous border with Egypt.
“We view them as infiltrators looking for work,” Amnon Ben-Ami, director general of the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Borders Authority (PIBA), tells The Jerusalem Report. “Calling them anything else is an affront to real refugees.”
The very name of his unit leaves no doubt as to its mandate. “In 2010 alone there were close to 14,000 infiltrators,” he says. “That’s a significant increase over previous years, and about 1,200 a month. Men often come first and then send for their families. Sometimes the children come alone.”
To replay the tone of Ben-Ami’s voice, each of these sentences should end with an exclamation point. He sounds like a man under siege, if not by the specter of a wave of outsiders flooding a state whose ethnic and religious makeup, according to alarmists, is clearly in the balance, then by yet another member of a baying press corps seeking out the guy who seems to be wearing the black hat of a haredi Jew.
“We are trying to be as humane as possible,” he continues, the exclamation points piling up, “and I think our policies are among the most enlightened and advanced in the world.”
The representative of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees in Israel, William Tall, gives the country passing grades for the way it has handled the situation.
“Israel is now facing a mixed migration, similar to that faced by many southern European countries,” Tall tells The Report.
“Our role here has been transformed with the influx from Africa. The Israeli government has risen to the occasion, setting up its own mechanisms and infrastructure to deal with this.”
According to UNHCR guidelines, the Sudanese and Eritreans who appear at the border cannot be turned back. This is because Sudan considers Israel an enemy state, and it’s reasonable to assume that anyone who goes back would be punished. As for Eritrea, with which Israel has diplomatic relations, the UN believes there’s enough upheaval and political instability to make it, too, dangerous for repatriation.
According to Ben-Ami, many among the rest of the migrants, who come from such places as Ethiopia, Nigeria, Congo, Guinea and the Ivory Coast, exploit this policy. “The ones we can turn away,” he says, “get rid of their identity papers before they reach the border and say they’re from Sudan or Eritrea.”
No matter whom he’s talking about, Ben- Ami uses the word infiltrator. He does not say refugee or even the ultra-generic migrant, even though he also oversees a process that can ultimately bestow the classification of refugee on a lucky few. How few? “Out of 5,000 who have undergone the process,” Ben-Ami says, “three or four have been granted refugee status.”
ACCORDING TO PROF. GALIA Sabar, who chairs the African Studies program at Tel Aviv University, the influx cannot be pinned on any mass migration in Africa.
“There are no famines,” she tells The Report. “But there is economic depression and political dictatorships. Yet none of this is new.
What is new is the fact that crossing the border to Israel is an option. Conditions haven’t changed, but there are new opportunities, and Israel is the only Western country that people can cross into straight from the Third World.”
The trigger for the current migration, she says, was a combination of “push and pull,” starting around New Year’s Eve of 2005.
“The ‘push’was a massive demonstration in Cairo, mainly organized by refugees from Sudan, both from the south and from Darfur,” Sabar explains. “They were in Cairo under the protection of the UNHCR. The Egyptians became extremely hostile to these people, and the demonstration was handled with severe violence on the part of the authorities. Dozens of refugees were killed. Suddenly, a lot of Sudanese holding refugee cards decided it was a good time to exit Egypt.”
The pull has been nearby Israel and the possibilities it offers, as well as Bedouin tribes.
“Many Bedouin live along ancient trade routes that lead from Egypt to Israel,” Sabar continues. “The routes are well known. When Israel cracked down on human trafficking – which primarily involved the sex trade and women from the former Soviet Union being smuggled into the country through the Sinai with assistance from Bedouin – the smugglers specializing in human contraband needed work.
After what happened to the refugees in Cairo, the Bedouin saw a potential for new clients.”
According to Sabar, word spread quickly among the Africans.
“It was relatively easy to cross the border into Israel, and getting here, while expensive, was manageable,” she says. “A migrant enters Israel, is treated well and finds a job. He sends a text message to a friend back home: Come.
So the friend does.”
THE PRIME CROSSING POINTS are located along the border between the southern Gaza Strip and Eilat, which, due to the rugged topography, especially closer to Eilat, have precluded the construction of a viable and, at least until now, cost-effective barrier.
At first, infiltrators who were confronted by passing army patrols were turned back – until some were gunned down by Egyptian forces.
Soon, sympathetic IDF soldiers, after ascertaining that the infiltrators were unarmed, began to let them continue on their way, while some even drove them to the nearest town and simply dropped them off.
Later, following mounting complaints by local authorities, the drop-off point became Ketziot, a facility in the western Negev close to the border with Egypt that had initially been used to house Palestinians arrested during unrest in the Gaza Strip. There, living in tents, the infiltrators have been held until their identification is verified, and if it’s determined that they pose no security threat, they are given three-month visas by the Interior Ministry and set free – on condition that they reapply for the visa every three months.
And where to from there? “They go wherever there is work, primarily Tel Aviv and Eilat, but also to Ashdod and even north of Tel Aviv,” says Goni Lavie of Dror Yisrael, a human-rights group that has focused some of its more recent efforts on young migrants by providing them with self-help courses and programs, and assisting them with the paper work involved in visits to the authorities.
“They primarily perform menial labor, generally by cleaning homes and small offices, and by performing odd jobs – whatever keeps them from drawing the attention of the authorities.”
For obvious reasons, they tend to stick together.
“Most have a place to live,” Lavie tells The Report. “They organize themselves into groups and rent cheap apartments in the poorer neighborhoods.
Yet on warmer evenings, you can find 100, 200 sleeping in public parks or on sidewalks.”
Some municipal welfare agencies help out where they can, she says, but most lack the funds and infrastructure to assist migrants. She also insists that the newcomers have not brought with them any serious diseases, although their health is a “serious matter.”
“They arrive after an arduous journey,” she explains. “Many are exhausted, sick and even injured. Some have bullet wounds. Doctors for Human Rights and other voluntary health groups run clinics in the neighborhoods where they’re concentrated. It’s difficult getting medications, although hospital emergency rooms must accept them. Some actually buy private insurance, while others who work – even illegally – somehow manage to obtain a minimal health net, which is required by law for all working people.”
If social friction arises, it’s generally in the neighborhoods, where some veteran residents seem to resent the intrusion, primarily citing rising crime. Yet the issue of crime by and among migrants is not entirely clear. Recently, Israel Police Chief David Cohen said migrants had been responsible for close to five percent of the country’s homicides and also contributed to lesser criminal statistics, although some of his figures appeared to also take in the approximately 200,000 foreign workers who are in the country legally. Yet a recent study by the Knesset’s Center for Research and Information seemed to indicate crime rates among migrants that are well below national averages.
Whatever the discontent, right-wing groups currently agitating against the presence of Arabs in Jewish areas have also hitched their wagons to the migrant issue, with one Knesset member telling the Jewish residents of a south Tel Aviv quarter that he wanted to raise funds to house migrants in wealthier neighborhoods, and then see what the “bleeding hearts” living there had to say.
There have also been several attacks against migrants, ranging from street beatings – some in broad daylight – to vandalism against what little property they possess.
Lavie insists that the migrants should not be viewed as a criminal population.
“These are victims who are sometimes forced by circumstance to break laws,” she insists. “We have not seen any instances of violence originating from these people, but when some of them live in the streets and lack work, things happen. The central problem today is a lack of coherent policy. Like any sovereign state, Israel has a right to declare who enters the country, and how many. But it also has moral and humanitarian obligations toward people like these.”
RELEASING THE MIGRANTS into society at large has clearly been a way to keep pressure from reaching the boiling point. But there are now clear signs of a clampdown. In November, the government announced plans to build a border barrier costing hundreds of millions of dollars aimed at keeping economic migrants out, and a more permanent holding center for refugees and asylum-seekers fleeing war or persecution. There will also be tighter controls on visas and a stepped-up effort against illegal employment.
“We do not intend to arrest refugees from war,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet. “We allow them to enter and will continue to do so. But we must stop the mass entry of illegal infiltrators who are seeking work, due to the serious implications this wave will have on the character and future of the State of Israel.”
PIBA’s Ben-Ami, clearly interested in putting the best face on what could easily turn into a very ugly situation, insists the move is intended as a sign that “we’re cracking down, but also that we care and wish to do this in a humanitarian way.” He says that while the planned holding center will be operated by Israel’s Prisons Authority, those staying there will not be under lock and key, and will be free to come and go.
“This will not be a prison,” he tells The Report. “It’s to give these people a solution until they’re repatriated. It will also serve as a deterrent against those who are on their way or thinking of coming. The greatest motivation for coming is work. Once there is control, we can crack down on employers. We have to enforce labor laws.”
UNHCR’s Tall is cautious, but obviously concerned.
“It’s understandable that the government wants to stem the flow, but we worry that some of the measures may be harsh,” he says. “The issue of the detention camp [for example]. We have to be practical. We’re advocating for an open facility with a presence by non-governmental organizations. It should not be seen as a deterrent, but as a genuine effort to protect these migrants and help solve their problems, not just those of Israel. We are also concerned about new visa regulations that could make it easier for Israel to deny these people’s requests to stay.”
There are also signs that Israel is taking an even more proactive approach by zeroing in on migrants who are fed up or homesick and offering them several hundred dollars and a one-way ticket home. A recent charter flight carried 150 Sudanese to Juba, the main city in southern Sudan. PIBA’s Ben-Ami said that no one on the flight had been in custody or was forced to board, a claim that UN officials seem to endorse.
The flight was organized and financed in part by International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, an evangelical group that gives strong support to Israel and also works with Christians in trouble spots around the globe, including in southern Sudan. According to ICEJ employee David Parsons, it has also been providing assistance to Sudanese migrants in Israel, especially Christians from the south.
“Repatriation has always been one of the options to explore,” Parsons tells The Report, “and if some migrants thought they could return and restart their lives in safety, we felt this should be one way to go.” He added that the flight was actually the third of its kind, although he wasn’t sure if and when further flights would take place.
WITH WORD OF THE NEW government plans, and following several noisy and even raciallycharged demonstrations by irate neighbors, migrants have begun making themselves heard. In late December, accompanied by sympathetic Israelis, several thousand held a street rally in Tel Aviv, where some speakers indicated they were nearing the breaking point.
“We are fed up with people calling us terrorists, telling us we are sick and have brought with us diseases,” declared one named Mubarak, who said he was from Darfur.
“We are fed up with people telling us we came here just to work, to take money and then go home. It’s not true. We… came to Israel, a democratic country and the only one that can help us and allow us to be here until peace is restored in our countries.”
Another speaker was Haile Mengisteab, 31, an Eritrean lawyer from Asmara. “While the government is building a prison camp in the Negev, we are asking it to normalize the [situation for] refugees in Israel because we need protection right now,” he said. “We need to be recognized as political asylum-seekers. We are not criminals.”
In an interview with The Report two weeks later, Mengisteab says he left his homeland because “there are no freedoms. The courts my clients faced were kangaroo courts. It’s jungle law. It’s very difficult to organize [against the government]. Israel was close by and democratic, so I decided to head here to wait out any changes that come to my country.”
He arrived at the Israeli border two months ago. He describes the soldiers as having been “kind and hospitable. They gave us water and food, and even clothes.” He spent 21 days at Ketziot until he was cleared to leave, and from there went to Tel Aviv, where he lives in a small apartment in the Levinsky quarter with five friends he knows from home.
“We need to stand up for our rights,” he says with emphasis in halting but passable English.
“We are not here for the long-term. We have a beautiful country and we want to go back. We simply want a chance to wait for change.”
He’s asked if he knows the story about the Vietnamese boat people who came to Israel.
“Vietnamese? What were they doing here?” he answers with clear surprise. After listening to a brief retelling of the story, he says that what Israel did three decades ago was “simply wonderful. I hope it can do the same for us.”