The African refugee problem in perspective

There is a saying in Hebrew to the effect that “a shared problem is half a consolation.”

Aftrican migrants pack after night in TA park_370 (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
Aftrican migrants pack after night in TA park_370
(photo credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin publicly expressed his disapproval of the words of incitement uttered by several Members of the Knesset against the tens of thousands of Africans who have infiltrated Israel in search of employment and/or refuge, against the background of last week’s anti-African violence in Tel Aviv.
Though Rivlin admits that there is a growing problem resulting from the presence of such a large body of persons, whose status in Israel is undefined and whose living conditions are unbearable, he emphasized that incitement is not the answer.
“When the public is angry, leaders must restrain the anger, and find solutions, instead of kindling it,” he said, referring especially to MK Miri Regev’s reference to the Sudanese as “a cancer in our body.”
True, many Israelis, especially those living in the towns and neighborhoods where the African infiltrators are concentrated, have reason to be angry, and one cannot deny that the unhealthy situation has resulted in a growing number of cases of theft and sexual attacks on women committed by Africans.
Chief of Police Yohanan Danino has suggested that the way to contend with the problem is to legalize the employment of the Africans, most of whom are idle and unable to make ends meet. But while this might solve part of the problem, it will also result in a growing number of Africans seeking to reach Israel.
In the meantime, the anger among certain Israeli population groups is increasingly accompanied by blind hatred against the Africans, of the sort that Jews have been subjected to throughout the ages. Anyone who watched Interior Minister Eli Yishai on TV last week speaking to African infiltrators being interviewed in detention facilities could not help being impressed with the fact that the contempt and total lack of empathy for these people are not limited just to anonymous crowds.
There is no denying that Israel confronts a real problem, which it has been slow to address. The government was slow to start effectively closing the border with Egypt against all types of infiltrators – traffickers in drugs and women, potential terrorists, and Africans. It has also failed to adopt a clear policy regarding the African infiltrators once they have managed to enter Israel.
Yishai proposes that they simply be concentrated in camps along Israel’s southern border and then deported, though how this can be done both effectively and humanely, given that we are speaking of at least 60,000 human beings, is not clear. He seems to believe that if the Africans cannot be sent back to their countries of origin, third countries will be found that will be willing to receive them.
But this is not realistic, and the thought of long-term concentration camps popping up along Israel’s southern border is disturbing. Though we are not speaking, of course, of concentration camps such as those constructed by Nazi Germany, we are speaking of camps where hapless individuals coming from a continent where starvation, genocidal civil wars, corrupt governments, anarchy and every imaginable (and unimaginable) social malady, are rife, will simply be left to rot.
It should be noted that it is not only Israel that is forced to contend with the problem of African refugees. The current number of African refugees is estimated at around three million. Most of these refugees remain in Africa itself, but growing numbers are trying to escape the African continent northwards.
Most of the refugees who have reached Israel through the Sinai Peninsula are Sudanese and Eritreans, while Europe is facing a flood of refugees from North Africa, though many of them are not of North African origin, and reached North Africa when it still enjoyed relative stability. The violence of the “Arab Spring” in countries like Libya and Tunisia once again shook the ground under these refugees’ feet.
Italy is the first destination of most of the Africans seeking refuge in Europe, and they attempt to reach it by sea. Of those who make it to Italy, most try to cross the border to countries further north. The Europeans are reacting in a similar manner to us – trying to block borders, despite the open borders policy of the EU.
The Europeans don’t want this mass of humanity anymore than Israel does. They also don’t seem to have much of a clue what to do about the problem, beyond closing borders, so consulting them on possible solutions is a futile exercise. The UN Refugee Agency, and all the other international agencies engaged in various aspects of the African quagmire also seem to be at a loss for effective solutions.
There is a saying in Hebrew to the effect that “a shared problem is half a consolation.” I don’t think that this saying applies to the current situation. To paraphrase another Hebrew saying: we are going to have to find a creative solution on our own, and the sooner the better.
The writer teaches at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College and was a Knesset employee for many years.