The strangers among us

Our government's unfathomable incompetence in addressing the problem has turned public sentiment against asylum- and job seekers.

African migrant walks with suitcase in south Tel Aviv 370 (R (photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner )
African migrant walks with suitcase in south Tel Aviv 370 (R
(photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner )
I am almost ashamed to admit it, but I am looking at the roundup of African asylum-seekers with an equal mixture of heartbreak and relief.
Heartbreak because it goes against something deeply embedded inside every Jew to see a refugee who is seeking a better life jailed and deported; and relief because frankly, this complex situation has just become more than Israel and its citizens can handle.
It began about six years ago with African refugees from war-torn Sudan and poverty-stricken Eritrea desperately crossing the Sinai to find refuge from the horrors of their homelands. Exploited, raped and sometimes murdered by Beduin who sold their organs, Africans who made it into Israel alive found a sympathetic ear among Israelis.
How could they not? We are the country with the single largest number of Holocaust survivors anywhere in the world; a country that has accepted and integrated millions of refugees fleeing life-threatening oppression. Perhaps that is why when Egyptian border guards were shooting to kill, we Israelis were putting up border camps to provide shelter and medical care to asylum-seekers, and finally, after a brief interrogation, busing them free of charge to Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park, where they were set free.
NOW, SIX years later, that trickle has turned into a flood, the yearly number of asylum-seekers (dubbed “infiltrators”) doubling, tripling and quadrupling to close to 1,000 a month, from less than 3,000 a year in 2006. The accumulated total will soon equal the number of those making aliya. However much compassion we have, there is, finally, a widespread realization that if it is allowed to continue, this influx will drastically change the face of the Jewish state forever.
Our sense of the motivation of these new arrivals has also contributed to this change of heart. As Omar from Sudan recently told reporter Lior Avni in Zman Hadarom: “There is no work and no chance for a better life [in Eritrea].
Israel is much more modern. There’s much more money here. You can live better.”
Those interviewed at the initial border absorption facilities echoed these sentiments.
One Sudanese woman said her husband had worked briefly in Egypt where he received 30 NIS a month– the hourly wage in Israel for those taking odd jobs. In Eritrea all they can hope to earn is the equivalent of 120 NIS a month.
Indeed, part of the reason for the growing numbers making it successfully across the border is the well-oiled machine now in place in which Beduin smugglers receive $3,000 a person, money sent ahead to refugees from earlier arrivals who have earned it working in Israel.
The growing concentration of these refugees in certain areas of the country is making life increasingly difficult for Israelis. While statistics show that the Africans are not responsible for greater incidences of crimes than natives, for any woman walking out in the evening, milling groups of single men are a perceived threat, no matter their nationality or color. In Ashdod, women are reportedly afraid to go out at all in the evening anymore. And the recent rape of a fifteenyear- old schoolgirl in Ashkelon by a Sudanese man who broke into the courtyard of her high school, as well as the gang rape of a young woman near the old Tel Aviv bus station by a group of Eritreans and Sudanese, has further inflamed nerves on edge for a number of much more mundane reasons.
For one thing, immigrants are flooding the rental housing market in certain key areas, paying landlords enormous sums as 20 or 30 share floor space, making it impossible for local housing-seekers to compete. The litter from these dwellings is overloading the city’s municipal cleaning and trash-collection squads, leaving squalor in its wake. Labor rooms in hospitals like Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon are overcrowded with African women, most of whom have no medical coverage, straining the city’s resources.
But beyond the normal problems of the influx of new residents looking for housing, work and medical care, the Africans pose another problem. According to the US State Department’s latest figures, Eritrea, which is the place of origin of three-fourths of all refugees in Israel, is now 50 percent Muslim. Given the delicate demographics in Israel, can we really afford to add thousands upon thousands of new immigrants, some of them Muslims, from countries like Sudan, which views Israel as its enemy? HOUSTON (MR. Netanyahu’s government), we have a problem. A serious one, which government non-decisions and incompetence have finally brought to a head. Our belated attempts to solve it have come up with no wonderful solutions.
Interior Minister Eli Yishai, an Orthodox Jew, has further exacerbated the problem by making inflammatory, racist comments about how the asylumseekers “are all involved in crime and deserve to be jailed,” adding that he is determined to protect the “Jewish nature” of the state. I’d think the Torah concept of compassion for the stranger would have figured somewhere in his rhetoric, but no.
Nevertheless, I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit to viewing with relief his initiative not to extend the temporary residence status for asylum-seekers and to return them to their native countries.
Israel is just too small to take in every African seeking a better life. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.
The Jerusalem District Court’s ruling against human rights groups protesting the plan to expel 1,500 citizens of South Sudan has now set the wheels in motion.
It was a reasonable decision. Things have changed drastically in the last year with the creation of a new country for these refugees, a country that even the UN refugee agencies admit is relatively at peace.
According to the plan, a call has gone out inviting such citizens to report voluntarily to receive a plane ticket home and a 1,000-euro stipend before being forcibly apprehended and expelled without any compensation. A bit draconian, I admit, but even worse, it leaves the major problem unsolved. It’s the Eritreans, not the Sudanese, who comprise threefourths of the African refugees seeking a home in Israel.
It’s not that I have no compassion for the Eritreans. I do. Eritrea is a devastatingly poor country ruled by a dictator with no sense of human rights. Forcible conscription has put most of its workforce into the army. Almost 1,000 Eritreans flee the country each month, despite its mined borders with Ethiopia and its shoot-to-kill policy toward emigrants.
Rounding up the Eritreans and sending them back to the mercies of President Isaias Afwerki is a terrible idea. Making them citizens of Israel and allowing hundreds of thousands to follow is even worse.
WHAT THEN, must be done? An excellent suggestion was put forth in this newspaper on May 24 by Labor MK Isaac Herzog, who pointed out that Israel has full diplomatic relations with Eritrea and thus is in a position to handle the refugee problem through diplomatic channels. I agree with Herzog: let us negotiate a treaty that would allow us to legally employ Eritreans for a limited time, and then have them welcomed back home with their earnings. A humane and fair suggestion if ever I heard one.
But if that doesn’t work out, unfortunately the problem will tolerate no further delay.
Our government’s unfathomable incompetence in addressing the problem for so long has clearly turned public sentiment against the asylum- and job-seekers.
The Knesset committee approved a law putting fines and jail terms for those hiring the asylum-seekers on par with those hiring illegal residents. Already, most of them have been fired, leaving them without any resources. A Jerusalem home rented to Eritreans was set on fire by arsonists, injuring four. Similar attacks have occurred against such apartments in Tel Aviv.
In the meantime, Israel is busily building a 200-kilometer barrier along the border with Egypt, which might be the most sensible long-term solution to this insoluble problem that pits our hearts against our heads, our near history against our present circumstances.