Israel’s current policy towards the 53,636 asylum-seekers in its midst, as the experience of the past week so painfully demonstrates, is both misconceived and counterproductive. Even if it can be implemented fully, it leads absolutely nowhere. Pursuing these measures will not make the tens of thousands Africans seeking refuge disappear, since the bulk of them—Eritreans and Sudanese—have nowhere to go; nor will they significantly improve the daily lives of Israelis. To the contrary: insistence on these steps is a sure prescription for deepening human misery, further poisoning public norms and baring Israel to increased international opprobrium. A thorough and urgent policy revision is needed now.
For too many years, successive Israeli governments ignored the entrance of Africans into the country via the Sinai. When their numbers grew, it was decided to provide collective temporary protection without employment rights to those who could not be repatriated. In this way, Israel bypassed the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its subsequent Protocols (that it helped draft), which lays out the procedures for processing requests for refugee status and require a review of documents on an individual basis. When the influx of those crossing into Israel rose dramatically at the beginning of this decade, the fence along the Egyptian border was completed, effectively stemming the flow of new migrants since 2012.
At the same time, legislation enabling the incarceration of all illegal entrants for a period of up to three years was drafted. Those not already covered by the collective protection arrangements were held in special centers (primarily in Saharonim), during which individual requests for refugee status were supposed to be processed (of the 11,000 petitions submitted up to August, 2013, only 80 were reviewed and none were accepted). This policy was struck down by the High Court last spring on the grounds that it violated human dignity and defied Israel’s international obligations. Just recently, in a move designed to skirt the Court’s decision, a revised law was passed, reducing the period of detention to one year in an open facility, Holot, where inmates must report in three times a day. This legislation is, like its predecessor, now under review by the High Court.
In the meantime, however, no provisions were made to address the issue of the over 50,000 Africans covered by the collective protection agreements. Even though many work—purportedly illegally but with the full collusion of the authorities—in menial jobs that Israelis won’t fill (mostly as cleaners and dishwashers in restaurants and hotels), they are subject to constant police harassment.
Most recently, their ability to renew their temporary visas has been thwarted by the constriction both of the times and venues that the Ministry of Interior will accept their requests, leaving them open to instant arrest and detention.
The crackdown during the past couple of years has been accompanied by an officially-backed campaign aimed at demeaning asylum-seekers, denigrating their motives and de-humanizing their being. The use of language has been central to this effort. Members of the African migrant community have been dubbed, at best, economic migrants who have come to Israel for personal gain or, at worst, infiltrators (the negative connotations of this appellation cannot be exaggerated).
By rejecting the use of the term asylum-seeker (someone worthy of protection during the processing of a request for refugee status), it became possible to circumvent the obligation to review applications for recognition as refugees (according to the UN convention, a refugee is “any person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or public opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country or return there because there is a fear of persecution”).
This semantic manipulation has opened the door for continuous assaults against migrants in the media and the public sphere. Former Interior Minister Eli Yishai of Shas was hardly rebuked when he suggested that African migrants were criminals or that they transmitted diseases. Nor was MK Miri Regev silenced when she depicted them as a “cancer in the heart of the nation.”
And Prime Minister Netanyahu has consistently referred to this disempowered community as a strategic threat to Israel.
What are more than 50,000 people supposed to do when they can’t go home, they can’t go elsewhere, they can’t work, they can’t feed themselves and they and their children have been stripped of their fundamental human dignity? For the most part, they have attempted to simply survive. But last week, they decided in a conscious strategic shift (which may yet backfire) to take action: they went on strike, gathering in the tens of thousands in non-violent demonstrations to assert their dignity, demand humane treatment and ask that their refugee requests be dealt with without further delay.
The official response has been almost beyond comprehension. The Minister of Interior, Gideon Sa’ar has appeared in every media outlet possible to reiterate that the demonstrators are dissemblers who constitute a real and present danger to the Jewish character of the state. He claims that no other country faces such an influx (disregarding data that 20,000 Eritreans obtained refugee status in 2012 alone, or that—according to a Knesset report—10 countries in Europe have a higher ratio of asylum-seekers per 1,000 citizens than Israel). And, with an obstinacy unsupported by any clear vision, he has dedicated himself to implementing existing policy with renewed vigor.
More perniciously, unable to accept that the outcry of African migrants was initiated and is being carried out by the community itself (although all the evidence available suggests precisely that), decision makers have jumped at the opportunity to lash out against human rights organizations (such as the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and The African Refugee Development Center), intimating that they have directly provoked these events. Questioning the capacity of the disempowered to act on their own behalf is, in and of itself, a form of human debasement. To use their actions as yet another opportunity to denounce the work of precisely those organizations that keep Israeli society attuned to universal and Jewish standards is both cynical and self-serving.
None of these reactions bode well for deescalating tensions or for finding a just and humane approach to a situation which has festered for too long. Nor have they garnered Israel any backing in international public opinion. In an unusual move, just this past weekend the UN High Commission for Refugees criticized the current policy and called on Israel to conform to acceptable norms.
Indeed, a balanced, fair and workable three-step solution has existed for some time. This involves, first, the continuation of strict restrictions on entry into the country, but in tandem with the absorption of individual cases in compliance with humanitarian law. Second, such a revised policy must expedite the processing of all asylum-seeker applications for refugee status according to global conventions. It is well known that, as the UNHCR highlights, “if the asylum system is both fast and fair, then people who know that they are not refugees have little incentive to make a claim in the first place.” And third, in the interim, Israel is morally, legally and pragmatically bound to make explicit provisions for the care of asylum-seekers and for the protection of their rights. Thus, in lieu of wholesale incarceration, work permits should be issued and medical and educational services offered in order to reduce the likelihood of further social conflagrations and to enable a dignified existence.
Failure to adopt these steps immediately will only prolong an untenable human situation, increase racism in Israeli society and contribute to Israel’s growing pariah standing in the international community. By embracing these measures, however, Israel can go a long way not only towards easing an increasingly complex situation and alleviating untold distress, but also towards being true to its heritage and its historic mission.