Israel, like other Mediterranean and European countries, is a magnet for asylum seekers escaping forced, open-ended conscription in Eritrea or war in Sudan. Their influx has forced Israel to face a painful dilemma: defend its Jewish character, or its Jewish values?
Hospitable at first, Israel’s attitude toward the asylum seekers changed as their numbers exploded. Since 2007 more than 53,000 asylum seekers (or infiltrators, as the Israeli government refers to them) have entered Israel illegally. Construction of a barrier fence around the Sinai border stopped the influx in 2013, but the problem of what to do with those already in Israel remains.
In light of Israel’s history, many Israelis feel a moral obligation to aid refugees. The government, however, as well as a large portion of the Israeli public, maintains that most of the Africans are not truly refugees, but economic migrants.
The unchecked flow of migrants into slums in south Tel Aviv and Eilat brought a rise in poverty, homelessness and crime, transforming some neighborhoods into refugee camps. In May 2012, protests erupted in cities around the country. Likud Knesset members called for the detention and expulsion of all asylum seekers. “The Sudanese are a cancer in our body,” said Likud’s Miri Regev. “We will do everything to return them to their place, and we won’t allow people to come here looking for work.” Protests later turned violent, as participants shattered the windows of stores belonging to people of African descent and attacked black passersby.
After the protests, then-President Shimon Peres issued a condemnation. “Hatred of foreigners contradicts the fundamental principles of Judaism,” he noted. “I am well aware of the difficulties faced by the residents of south Tel Aviv [and other similar areas], but violence is not the solution.”
After the protests, the government began an effort to remove asylum seekers from city centers. The Knesset amended Israel’s anti-infiltration law, permitting imprisonment of infiltrators for up to three years without trial. Although Israel’s Supreme Court struck down parts of the amendment in 2013, it allowed placing asylum seekers in open detention centers. This gave birth to Holot.
Human rights advocates claim that the de facto incarceration of refugees is a violation of human rights. “The government initiated just another prison, under a laundered name,” stated Knesset member Dov Khenin of the Hadash party. In January, more than 100 asylum seekers left Holot and marched in protest to Beersheva and later to Tel Aviv, sparking a wave of high-profile protests by asylum seekers and Israeli citizens that continue today.
This summer, in response to what they considered to be harsh new policies enacted at the Holot facility, asylum seekers went on a work stoppage, and eventually a hunger strike. And earlier this month, human rights groups charged that thousands of Sudanese migrants have returned to their country, in what they say amounts to a forced repatriation. Israel vigorously denies the charge, saying the majority of the asylum seekers are not refugees but are coming to the country for economic reasons and were not forced to leave Israel; Israeli officials say they do, however, encourage repatriation to a third country.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists that the infiltrator law will be enforced. “Just as we are determined to protect our borders, we’re determined to enforce the law,” he said. “The law is the law, and naturally it also applies to illegal workers. The infiltrators who were transferred to the special detainment facility can either stay there or go back to their home countries.”