Is Israel in 'post-influx' phase of migrant issue?

Analysis: Community of over 60,000 people are a potent campaign concern.

IDF watch over Sudanese migrants R370 (photo credit: Yonathan Weitzman/Reuters)
IDF watch over Sudanese migrants R370
(photo credit: Yonathan Weitzman/Reuters)
On New Year’s Eve two separate events relating to the migrant issue made headlines in the Israeli press: The Population, Immigration and Border Authority released figures showing a dramatic drop in the number of “infiltrators” entering Israel in 2012 over 2011, and a gag order was lifted allowing publication of the arrest of a 20-year-old Eritrean man suspected of raping an 83- year-old Israeli woman 10 days ago.
The two events came at the tail end of a year that saw the migrant issue crest on a number of occasions, particularly in late May, when an anti-migrant rally spiraled out of control and protesters began looting African-owned stores and attacking Africans on the streets of Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood.
According to PIBA figures, 10,365 people illegally entered Israel across its southern border in 2012, a 38% drop over 2011, when the number stood at 16,851.
The number is also significantly lower than the 80,200 new work permits given to foreign workers in 2012.
The most glaring figure in the report is the comparison between December 2011, when 2,931 migrants entered Israel from Egypt, and December 2012, when PIBA said only 37 entered the country and were all arrested immediately afterward. With work on the Egyptian border fence nearing completion, the number can be expected to remain at a fraction of what it was in years past.
Israel may now be reaching the “post-influx” – or “post-infiltration” – phase of the migrant issue, where it now needs to deal with those migrants already in the country, and may need to accept that most of them are here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.
The well-over-60,000 illegal African migrants in Israel are a potent campaign issue for right-wing parties like Shas, Bayit Yehudi and Likud. In particular, the far-right Strong Israel party seems to be focusing its campaign mostly on the migrant issue and its attempts to have Balad MK Haneen Zoabi banned from running for the next Knesset.
Though Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu last week expressed his intentions to work to return tens of thousands of illegal migrants back to their home countries, such a move is virtually impossible as it would expose Eritrean and Sudanese migrants to danger and persecution upon return to their home countries.
It is also highly unlikely that any third-party countries in Africa or elsewhere will agree to take them. More importantly, however, it remains to be seen if Netanyahu, at the moment flanked on the right by Shas and Bayit Yehudi, will still focus on the migrant issue after the elections.
After January, when the ballots are long closed, the migrant issue will still be a burning one for the residents of south Tel Aviv and peripheral towns in the country’s South, where the influx is being felt. They will still have over-stressed social services and schools, and will still be riven with tension between veteran Israelis and new arrivals.
With the southern border all but closed, unless smugglers find new paths across the sea and then over the Jordanian border, the matter will no longer be one that can be dealt with solely as an anti-infiltration or law enforcement issue, and will have to met head on with social policies meant to ease the burden on the veteran Israelis living in neighborhoods with a high concentration of migrants.
The government may also consider allowing those same migrants the ability to work and live legally outside the newly-built detention facilities, so that for the time they do remain here, however long it is, they will be able to live humanely without being an excess burden on Israeli society.
Over 2012 the African migrant issue peaked and faded repeatedly in the Israeli press and public debate. In 2013, Israelis would be wise to deal with the issue even when there isn’t an election or a highly-publicized and shocking act of violent crime.