Migrants who came to Israel illegally are beginning the new year with a stark choice: get out or get to jail. And this may just be the start of a tougher policy towards African “infiltrators” — the state is also examining the possibility of forced deportations.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was at his most statesmanlike when announcing that his government is ramping up efforts against these immigrants from Eritrea and Sudan, estimated at 38,000 to 60,000 people. “Every country must guard its borders,” he told his cabinet, announcing grandly that he was occupied with “a fundamental obligation of a sovereign state.”
He doesn’t expect to send these immigrants home, but is enthusiastic about them being received by third countries. He wants them to willingly board planes out of Israel, incentivized by a $3,500-per-person Israeli grant, and says that 20,000 people have already agreed to deportation on these terms. Netanyahu won’t say where they are going, but it is believed to be Rwanda.
To many on the Israeli right, this policy — along with the five-year-old border fence that has stopped new migrants from arriving — is spot-on. They say Israel is too small to accommodate the Africans, who fled economic peril and war in their home countries, and see them as a demographic threat and a problem for their country’s social fabric.
Advocates for the migrants, however, say that Israel is dispatching people into uncertainty. “Israel is sending refugees to an unsafe state and many of them to their deaths,” argued seven human rights organizations in an alarmed response to the new government policy. “Rwanda is not safe.”
The groups, including Hotline for Refugees and Migrants and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, say that the deportees don’t find stability in Rwanda and instead continue life without status or rights, and exposed to threats such as kidnapping, torture and human trafficking.
Some diaspora-based Jewish organizations are joining the criticism. “A line has been crossed,” said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees. “Forcing asylum seekers to choose between imprisonment and self-deportation violates the international protections Israel helped create after the Holocaust to ensure that individuals fleeing war and genocide have the opportunity to find safety.”
Hetfield sent a letter to Netanyahu, along with other Jewish leaders: Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street; Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women; and Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.
Israeli government officials reject that they are sending people into danger, and see this purported avoidance of danger zones as precisely the reason people are being deported to the third country and not their places of origin.
Netanyahu, in explaining his thinking, told his cabinet of two visits he made in the fall to southern Tel Aviv, where the Africans are concentrated and where his Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has claimed that migrants are establishing “a city within a city, pushing out the residents of the neighborhoods.”
On one of the visits, Netanyahu said he encountered a 72-year-old Israeli woman whose apartment building is now mostly populated by Africans. “The filth of the street is one thing,” he said at the time, but her reluctance to leave her home unescorted is “intolerable.” He said that he heard in Tel Aviv of residents’ “tremendous distress in the face of this serious problem of illegal infiltrators.”
Citizens in southern Tel Aviv are distressed, their neighborhoods have changed beyond recognition, and they do live with serious social difficulties. But this doesn’t prove that there is a major problem inherent in the presence of African migrants in Israel. Rather, it proves that the state push to concentrate these people in one place, and without comprehensive plans for social care and provision (whether officials envisaged a permanent or temporary stay) has, inevitably, brought bad results that anger the local population.
The demographic issue is real, and something that officials should be thinking about. It’s OK for them to say that Israel is a small country and ask what, if some Africans remain here, would be the status and place of their children and grandchildren in Israeli society.
But the current conversation is alarmist — intentionally so. It’s unclear how many African migrants will actually be pushed to leave Israel by the new hardline approach if you discount people who were on track for deportation anyway (probably similar to last year, around 4,000 people), and also discount those exempted from the new policy. This means children, adults over 60, parents of dependent minor children, victims of human trafficking and slavery and people with serious physical or mental problems. A very large proportion of migrants fit into these categories.
What’s more, expect delays in the policy’s implementation stemming from legal challenges by activist groups, budgetary problems and concerns by Israel about its international image.
Politicians have the unhappy citizens of southern Tel Aviv — an area that was neglected long before the Africans started arriving — making the issue emotive, and have managed to inflate, in the minds of the general public, the demographic threat posed. It’s a discussion that politicians can control, as their target, the migrants, don’t have a say in the political system and have a limited voice in the media.
And for frustrated citizens who wonder how their leaders will ever effectively deal with the Palestinian conflict, the Iranian threat and so on, finally there’s a “threat” for which their leaders seem to hold all the cards.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.