Illegal infiltration to Israel: It’s the economy, stupid!

Eritreans and Sudanese are coming to Israel in search of work, not for refugee status.

African migrants protest in Tel Aviv, January 6. (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
African migrants protest in Tel Aviv, January 6.
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Before determining policy for dealing with illegal infiltration into Israel, we must first acknowledge a few facts.
First and foremost, we must understand that the majority of infiltrators are coming from Eritrea and Sudan, and do not meet the criteria for refugee status according to the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Most of them, including people who passed through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) explicitly stated upon arrival that they had come to Israel in search of work. (A minimum-wage salary for one month in Israel is the same as the average salary for three years’ work in Eritrea.) Additionally, according to UN figures, 85 percent of infiltrators to Israel are young men, which is a distinct characteristic of economic migrants, as opposed to refugees, who typically flee for their lives together with their families. Note that the EU recognizes only 30% of asylum claims by Eritreans and Sudanese; some countries recognize more than this, and some don’t recognize any at all.
The second fact is that all infiltrators to Israel have passed through at least one other country in which there was an active branch of the UNHCR, and have paid huge sums of money to reach the Israeli border. Article 31 of the UN charter explicitly states that the rights enumerated in it should be awarded only to refugees who come directly from the country in which they were being persecuted.
A third and no less important fact is that in recent years Israel has absorbed more illegal immigrants than any other country in the EU in absolute numbers.
And if we consider the numbers as a percentage of Israel’s population, the picture is much more extreme. For example, in 2011, Israel absorbed 10 times as many infiltrators as France, 20 times as many as Italy and 100 times as many as Spain.
We’re talking about a critical mass of people that Israel cannot – and certainly is not obligated to – absorb and grant legal residence to.
Despite all of the above and the fact that many infiltrators are not eligible for refugee status, Israel has refrained from forcibly returning them to their home countries. The case of infiltrators from Sudan is unique since Israel does not have diplomatic relations with the country and therefore technically has no way to send Sudanese citizens back home. On the other hand, Israel has full diplomatic relations with Eritrea, but is not willing to take responsibility for migrants’ safety if they are forcibly returned.
One of the reasons for this is that onethird of that country’s GDP comes from money sent back by migrants, and the immunity that Eritrean immigrants enjoy in Western countries thus serves the interests of the current regime.
SO WHAT should we do? Although the infiltrators cannot be sent back home by force, the majority of them would not be in danger if they were to return of their own will via a third country.
But not one single infiltrator will leave Israel of his own volition when he knows there is the possibility of finding work here.
Therefore, the government policy that calls for the establishment of facilities to house and provide for the basic needs of infiltrators while their eligibility for asylum is being checked in a reasonable amount of time, but without permitting them to work, is an extremely important and necessary step in the right direction. This policy has proven its efficacy, both from the drastic reduction in new arrivals of infiltrators into Israel and by the large number of infiltrators who returned to Eritrea and Sudan last year; 2,000 left Israel in 2013, including 300 in December alone.
The mass demonstrations we witnessed this week only prove that protesters are not seeking asylum, but the right to work in Israel and to eventually receive permanent residential status. No one is disputing the fact that Israel should not forcibly return people whose lives are in danger and should protect them, but unfortunately, sometimes the leaders of “humanitarian” groups use the African infiltrators’ cause to advance radical political agendas.
This not only harms citizens of the State of Israel, but first and foremost hurts the chances that the real refugees, who are being swallowed up in the huge mass of illegal infiltrators receiving the aid they need.
I believe these protests will have the opposite effect on the Israeli public than their organizers intended. For the first time Israelis are being exposed to the intensity of this problem, on live TV. Most Israelis are not going to be convinced by thousands of young men, sans families, proclaiming slogans prepared ahead of time for the cameras about how wretched their lives are as refugees. We need to hope that the government will not give in to the economic infiltrators and will continue making great efforts to return law and order to the cities of Israel, and promote appropriate and sane immigration policies for the State of Israel.
The writer is director of PR and communications at the Israeli Immigration Policy Center.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.