Migrant policy

Israel is less well positioned than Europe to absorb Africans.

An African migrant sits on the street in Tel Aviv, Israel January 31, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
An African migrant sits on the street in Tel Aviv, Israel January 31, 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s indecisive handling of the African migrant crisis raises serious questions about the ability of this government, and the man who stands at its head, to shape a coherent immigration policy. Both Israelis – particularly those living in south Tel Aviv – and African migrants – some of them with small children – are left in limbo wondering what Israel’s next step will be.
With no notice, the prime minister announced a sudden backtrack on a hard-line, zero tolerance, policy of years and of consecutive governments he headed that denied legal status to any person who entered Israel illegally and could not prove he or she was eligible for refugee status.
Instead, Netanyahu said, Israel had signed an agreement with the UN that would open the way for over half of the migrants, including those who entered Israel illegally, to receive residency status here.
Then, a few hours after the press conference during which Netanyahu defended the deal, he backtracked, saying that he would first meet with south Tel Aviv’s residents before making a final decision. And then on Tuesday afternoon, he revoked the UN plan completely.
We hope Netanyahu remains committed to Israel’s original migrant policy that left no room for doubts and that worked.
Israel built a barrier on the southern border to prevent migrants from entering Israel via Egypt. But more important, it passed legislation starting in 2012 designed to take away the economic incentive for illegal migration.
Elements of this legislation have been challenged by the High Court of Justice, particularly policies related to longterm incarceration of migrants. But the court was willing to accept a trade-off between the need to protect the rights of illegal migrants and the need to protect the right of the nation to decide who enters its borders and who does not.
In contrast, the deal reached with the UN seemed bad.
Israel was to give residency status to illegal migrants who came to Israel in search of employment, not as asylum-seekers who faced persecution in their country of origin. This has the potential to encourage thousands more to brave the trek to the Jewish state in the hope of receiving residency.
Also, while the UN deal talks of some 39,000 migrants, and finds a deportation solution for 16,250, with an equal number of 16,250 given residency status in Israel, it is unclear what will happen to the remaining 6,500. What’s more, there are probably closer to 50,000 African migrants presently in Israel, not 39,000.
And even if Israel managed to deport 16,250 to Europe, it is unclear how it will deal with those who refuse to go.
Complicating matters are reports from Germany and Italy, two of the Western countries which Netanyahu said agreed to take in Israel’s migrants, that they know nothing of Israel’s agreement with the UN. In truth, it makes little sense that these two countries, which have their own migrant crises and which underwent major political upheavals in their most recent elections over the issue, would agree to help Israel solve its own, smaller, migrant crisis.
Other aspects of the UN deal are utterly detached from reality, such as Netanyahu’s talk of “scattering” the migrants who receive residency status, as though they were some many inanimate objects that remain where they are put. South Tel Aviv has jobs and supportive, organic communities and will continue to attract migrants, no matter how much the government tries to “scatter” them.
Anyone human cannot remain indifferent to the plight of migrants seeking a better life. But as Europe has realized, it is impossible for free, Western countries to solve the problems of the colossally dysfunctional societies of Africa and the Middle East by absorbing tens of thousands of migrants. Doing so weakens previously stable economies and does little to advance the cause of migrants who might have physically arrived but who overwhelmingly remain culturally alienated and unemployed.
Israel, a tiny country of Jews – many of them refugees or descendants of refugees – surrounded by hundreds of millions of hostile Muslims and with its own minority Arabs, is less well positioned than Europe to absorb Africans.
The fragility of Israel’s position was demonstrated earlier this week when tens of thousands of Gazans attempted to rush the border fence.
The UN deal might have been a temporary slip and a lesson in bad management. Nevertheless, Israel needs to set a clear policy. Now is the time.