Israel and migrants

DATE IMPORTED: September 06, 2015 Refugees and migrants sleep on the railway tracks close to the borders of Greece with Macedonia, near the village of Idomeni, September 6, 2015.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
DATE IMPORTED: September 06, 2015 Refugees and migrants sleep on the railway tracks close to the borders of Greece with Macedonia, near the village of Idomeni, September 6, 2015.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
No sensitive human being can remain indifferent to the plight of hundreds of thousands of migrants forced to flee their homes in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Many have drawn parallels with the World War II period.
“Treatment of migrants evokes memories of Europe’s darkest hour” was the headline of a story in The New York Times describing the situation in cities such as Budapest and Vienna. As Jews who suffered so horribly as refugees during the Nazi era, we have a special sensitivity to the images of men, women and children forced to flee their homes to save themselves from the ravages of war.
Jewish empathy seemed to be behind opposition leader Isaac Herzog's call for Israel to open its doors to Syrian refugees. “I urge the Israeli government to carry out a process of absorbing refugees from Syria, in addition to humanitarian efforts already being made now,” Herzog said. “Jews cannot be indifferent when hundreds of thousands of refugees are searching for a safe haven.”
However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear at the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday that while Israel is not indifferent to the human tragedy of refugees from Syria and Africa, he has no intentions to implement Herzog’s call.
Still, Europeans have a lot to learn from the way Israel coped with its own refugee problem. In 2010, the number of migrants and asylum seekers who made their way to Israel from Africa – mostly Eritrea and Sudan – via its southern border with Egypt jumped from around 5,000 a year to 14,680. In 2011, 17,300 entered Israel from the Sinai Peninsula, which represents more than 2,000 migrants per million Israelis, more than any European country in 2014.
But in 2013, just 43 migrants managed to infiltrate Israel's southern border. What happened? It is commonly thought that the barrier Israel constructed along the Egyptian border is what has stopped the flow of migrants from Africa. Undoubtedly, it has contributed to the drop. But the wall was not fully completed until the beginning of 2013, while the number of migrants began dropping sharply in mid-2012.
In June 2012, Israel passed the anti-infiltration law, which made it illegal to employ migrants. In parallel, Israel began to construct detention centers to provide migrants who were prevented from working with basic needs – food, shelter and clothing. Almost as soon as Israel removed the economic incentive, migrants stopped coming.
Hundreds of lives were saved. More Eritreans and Sudanese had died making the arduous journey to Israel than were killed in fighting or by the regimes of the countries from which they were fleeing.
Unfortunately, subsequent battles in the High Court have severely weakened the anti-infiltration law. In August, the High Court rejected a central part of the law. Detention is now restricted to just one year, after which migrants are permitted to work.
But the lesson was learned. Do away with economic incentives and the flood of migrants stops. It's true in Israel and it is true in Europe. Eliminating economic incentives is ultimately a more humane solution. The vast majority of migrants who reach the European continent have already escaped the existential threats of warfare and persecution by reaching countries like Turkey or Egypt.
The story of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, whose body washed up on a Turkish shore, is illustrative. The image of the dead boy lying face down shocked the world. But Kurdi died because his parents were seeking a better life in Europe, or perhaps Canada, where they believed they could find work. The Kurdi family had already reached Turkey's Bodrum peninsula. However, they chose to continue to the Greek island of Kos, which they hoped to use as a springboard for a better life.
If the Europeans were to devise a policy similar to Israel's, they could eliminate the incentive for reaching Europe and lives of children like Kurdi could be saved.
Detention centers could be set up to absorb the refugees and provide them with basic needs. At the same time, the EU could pass legislation making it absolutely clear that migrants will not be allowed to find work in Europe. Those truly fleeing existential dangers could be offered shelter, while those seeking to better their lot would be discouraged from making the hazardous trip in the first place.
Israel's lawmakers have devised a simple solution that could be adopted by the Europeans: Remove the incentive and reduce the suffering.