Interior minister vows government will stand firm on migrant policy

Gideon Sa'ar discusses this week’s mass demonstrations by African migrants in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem; accuses outside bodies of initiating protests to pressure state to change "infiltrator law".

Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar. (photo credit: Aloni Mor/Sof Hashavua)
Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar.
(photo credit: Aloni Mor/Sof Hashavua)
“We will not change our policies just because we are being pressured, and we also will not change our policies in order to achieve a fictitious calm that would harm our national interests,” Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar said following the protests this week in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem by tens of thousands of African migrants who have been striking since Sunday.
Sa’ar said that it was important to understand that most of the “infiltrators” had come to Israel for economic reasons and not to seek asylum.
In an exclusive interview with Sof Hashavua, The Jerusalem Post’s sister paper, the interior minister accused outside bodies of initiating the protests, but did not name them.
“The infiltrators are not the ones asking for protest permits. They are not the ones paying for the buses,” Sa’ar said. “There are people who are trying to use this protest as a way to get the government to change its policies, and to pressure Supreme Court judges who will be called upon to hear the appeal these organizations submitted against the new infiltrator law which was recently passed in the Knesset.”
Why do you think this mass protest broke out now?
A number of steps were taken recently: The new infiltrator law was passed, the open detention center in Hulot was opened and infiltrators were brought there from Tel Aviv. In addition, the financial incentive to infiltrators who are willing to leave of their own volition was increased, and they are now being offered $3,500. The smugglers bringing them to the Israeli border and the organizations helping them once they arrive have also realized that the government is serious about its intentions to implement its policies.
And they have reacted by carrying out a protest.
Have the steps the government has taken brought about actual change?
In December, there was a record number of people leaving of their own free will, and so far we are seeing a similarly large number now in January. Some organizations are encouraging infiltrators not to leave – to wait and see what will happen. So these numbers could change any day.
Are you referring to aid organizations?
It is legitimate to disagree with government policies. What infuriates me is when organizations make libelous statements about the State of Israel and the demonstrations in front of foreign embassies and the verbal attacks that are carried out in front of the international media cameras. Israel has nothing to be ashamed of and is coping with this phenomenon just as well as other Western nations that have dealt with this same issue.
In your opinion, has the protest harmed Israel’s image in the world?
It’s still too early to judge how things will turn out in the long run, but our goal is clear. There are many other nations that are also dealing with illegal immigration – this is a global phenomenon. Just look at what’s happening in Australia, the US, Italy and Switzerland.
The question is, have we as a country woken up in time or are we too late. Just take a look at some European cities and you can see how quickly and to what extent things have changed there.
Do you think this could happen in Israel too?
We have only one country, and it is my responsibility to protect our borders. Compared with other countries, the Israeli government has reacted quickly and efficiently to prevent the infiltration of more illegal immigrants.
And yet, tens of thousands of illegal infiltrators have already found their way into Israel. Maybe Israel woke up too late?
We’ll always be able to say that we could have woken up earlier. The previous government built a fence along the border with Egypt and also passed the infiltrator law relatively quickly. These two factors have been very effective in discouraging illegal immigration.
A few months ago, the High Court of Justice ruled that the infiltration law, which allowed the government to keep infiltrators in custody for up to three years, was unconstitutional and stands in contradiction with the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. In response, the government shortened the amount of time they could be held to one year and opened a detention center.
The paradox is that because the law was successful in carrying out its goal, it was appealed to the High Court. The real test is to check whether we can uphold judgments even when we don’t agree with them.
The new law took into consideration the High Court’s ruling, which gave us the tools to deal with this phenomenon. The new infiltrator law took the ruling and legal advice into consideration.
Do you truly believe that the fence and the new law will be the solution?
The entire Western world is dealing with the problem of illegal immigration, but we are the only ones who share a physical border with Africa. Therefore, if we do not create an extremely explicit law, we will find ourselves flooded with infiltrators who aspire to reach a Western country with a high standard of living. On a human level, I understand their desire to come to Israel, but I am responsible for our entire nation. I cannot view this situation through the eyes of others.
Some people claim that we’re not talking about mass migration. Do you have an estimate of how many people dream about coming to Israel?
According to UN statistics, tens of millions of Africans are interested in migrating to a Western country.
This includes Spain, Italy, France and Israel. If Israel is considered the country with the most liberal illegal infiltration policy, then more people will go to Israel than to the other Western countries. Dealing with many thousands of infiltrators would be much harder and would have more long-term ramifications.
Asylum-seekers claim that the Israeli authorities are not checking their requests to recognize them as refugees.
Most of the infiltrators have not applied for asylum. According to our records, there are currently 53,600 infiltrators in Israel, not including natural growth. Only 1,800 applications for asylum have been submitted. In other words, only 3.4 percent of infiltrators have requested that they be recognized as refugees. This is an important indication of the fact that they are not true refugees, but economic migrants.
How are requests for refugee status checked?
Each request is examined on an individual basis. We check parameters such as their risk of being persecuted or if their lives are in danger [in their home countries]. The status of each individual is based on this information.
The process includes an interview during which the applicant tells his story in great detail. A special committee which includes representatives from the Interior, Justice and Foreign ministries, and which is headed by a legal expert, makes its recommendations and each application is thoroughly checked. But we will not agree to grant refugee status across the board to the tens of thousands of people, most of whom according to our information are migrant workers.
Out of the 1,800 applications that have been submitted, how many people have been granted refugee status?
A few dozen. According to our investigations, most of the infiltrators do fulfill international criteria to receive refugee status. Recently, I was personally involved in a case in which a person was granted refugee status for humanitarian reasons.
We were able to substantiate the story of a Nigerian woman who submitted an application by speaking with a woman in Nigeria who knew her situation.
The protesters are complaining that not enough clerks are working on their requests.We’ve doubled the number of staff and we now have a team of 60 people working on refugee status.
Protest organizers claim that these people cannot return to their homeland because their lives are in danger.
The facts show that this is not true. In December 2013 alone, 300 infiltrators returned of their own free will to Sudan and Eritrea.
Apparently the vast majority of them can return to their homelands, but the temptation to stay in Israel is very great since they can make more money in one month of working here than they can make there in more than two years back home.
Some 300 chose to leave of their own volition – this is not a very large number.
There are logistical problems that prevent us from being able to process all the applications and there are technicalities that also make it a difficult process. And still – since we doubled the amount of the grant we offer for leaving Israel voluntarily and took steps to enforce policies, more people have decided to leave. But, unfortunately, there are organizations that are working to thwart our efforts.
Are you working in conjunction with the Eritrean government?
I have held a number of meetings with the Eritrean ambassador to Israel. There have been a number of incidents of harassment, including last month at Kibbutz Kinneret [when the ambassador was meeting with migrants]. I think there are people who believe that being opposition leaders would mean a better chance of receiving refugee status for Eritrean migrants. Organizations that visited Eritrea to check if the people who returned were safe reported that these individuals had not been arrested.
Is the idea of finding a third country which could process Sudanese citizens still viable?
We are still talking with a third country and when we will have a breakthrough we will publicize this information.
Are you satisfied with the performance of the Foreign Ministry staff?
Israel has only one foreign ministry and our foreign minister just began his term. All in all, I have been very satisfied with everything.
Everyone knows that this is a matter of utmost national importance and everyone is making an effort to be of assistance.
Asylum-seekers are not the only ones who are protesting. Restaurateurs and hoteliers also support their struggle.
I truly feel for the people and industries that are suffering due to this wild strike, but I don’t understand why they are blaming the government. Up until 2006, when the large wave of infiltrators from Africa began, there were people working in restaurants and hotels.
These industries decided for financial reasons to rely on a cheaper work force made up by migrant workers who entered the country illegally, and can only blame themselves or their employees who are striking.
This mass protest by infiltrators was aimed at putting additional pressure on the government by involving the industries being affected.You’ve come out very strongly against restaurateurs. Why?
I cannot accept the fact that they are impugning the government that is acting in the country’s best interests. I checked the case of one of the first business owners who expressed his anger at the Israeli government. And do you know what I found out? Just a few days before then, he was sued by one of his workers – an infiltrator from Eritrea – who had sued him for failing to comply with the worker’s terms of employment. The protest by business owners, as far as I can see, is not based on a moral foundation to say the least.
Would you agree to meet with representatives of asylum- seekers?
I have not received any such requests.
Are you prepared in case the situation escalates?
Up until now, the protest has been carried out lawfully. This is in their best interests. The Israel Police is prepared for a variety of situations.
We will continue to carry out our policy with determination.
Since the protest began, you have been at the center of the struggle. Do you feel the prime minister and the other ministers are being fully supportive of you in their public statements?
I have received the full support of the prime minister, the government and the public. From what I’ve seen, most citizens, regardless of political affiliation, support us and understand that this is a very difficult situation. They all stand behind us, even though it might not always seem that way in the media.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.