Last week’s anti-migrant riot in South Tel Aviv was a wakeup call to begin a serious public discussion of Israel’s handling of the influx of illicit migrants. For the better part of the last decade, NGOs involved in migrant affairs have urged adoption of a constructive, well-planned policy, to no avail. The recent violence may accomplish what years of NGO warnings have failed to achieve.

The NGOs see three goals for the government: making it harder to arrive in Israel illegally; assuring humane treatment of illegal migrants until they can be deported; and providing a fair, professionally credible process for separating the true refugees, who deserve our protection, from illegal economic migrants who have no legitimate claim to be in this country. All three points are already anchored in Israeli law and in international treaties that Israel has signed.

Through a combination of myopia and ineptness previous governments failed to prioritize the issue. The price of inadequate action was largely paid by migrants and the residents of poor neighborhoods like those of South Tel Aviv, where migrants congregated due to low rents and access to illegal work.

Augustine, a Nigerian migrant, with his son in front of their Tel Aviv home, which also serves as a kindergarten for African children. The house was recently the target of a Molotov cocktail attack (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Augustine, a Nigerian migrant, with his son in front of their Tel Aviv home, which also serves as a kindergarten for African children. The house was recently the target of a Molotov cocktail attack (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The social situation in those neighborhoods was combustible, awaiting a spark. Following a string of arrests of a few illegal migrants for violent crimes in South Tel Aviv, a demonstration demanding government action got out of hand. Political figures made shamefully rabble-rousing speeches, using terms that may have constituted criminal incitement. That sparked some of the residents to vent their anger in an ugly and violent way. (Afterward, four MKs who had spoken there condemned the violence, and one apologized for comparing illicit migrants to cancer.)

Following the riot, some in the political class lost their bearings: seven mayors of key cities where migrants have taken up residence, representing parties from across the political spectrum, launched a campaign to either imprison or expel illicit migrants.

Thankfully, the Israeli police remained calm and did their jobs. They ultimately contained the violence, arrested 17 rioters and rescued potential lynch victims, including not only some local Africans but also journalists covering the event. No one was killed.

Israel’s predicament over the issue of illegal migration has no easy solution in the short and medium term, but it can be managed. Part of the problem is that an estimated 85% of the approximately 60,000 migrants currently in Israel cannot be deported to their home countries. Under international law, Israel cannot deport illegal Eritreans (60% of all migrants) due to the unstable horrific conditions under which the young African state is governed. The Sudanese (25% of illegal migrants), citizens of an enemy state, pose a different problem. Their dictatorial government declares that they committed treason by coming to Israel, and so returning them to their homes puts their lives at risk.

Many of the migrants have presumably legitimate claims to asylum. Indeed, according to advocates for the migrant workers, statistics from around the world indicate that “the rate of recognition…for Eritrean asylum seekers is 84%…for Sudanese…64%.” A bizarre result of Israel’s policy not to return Eritreans and Sudanese has been that it does not process their asylum requests. This leaves them in a legal limbo, where their work is illegal but there are ill-defined “understandings” with employers that the Interior Ministry will not prosecute those who break the law in employing them. The situation virtually guarantees abuse.

As with any social challenge, managing this one requires thoughtful analysis and good policy, not only for the sake of the migrants but also for the society that must absorb them (at least temporarily). One can hardly say that the Interior Ministry’s work to date measures up. To be fair, at least one step that should have been taken a half a dozen years ago is finally under way, triggered by the declining security situation in the Sinai: a physical barrier is rising along the Egyptian border, the main access route for human smuggling. Its expected completion by the end of the year should considerably reduce the illicit human traffic. But conditions in Africa remain so severe that the stream of migrants will likely reorient to the border with Jordan, which will necessitate another construction project there to beef up the current inadequate fence.

With equal delay, the Interior Ministry recognized that it had few qualified personnel to conduct credible asylum hearings, and brought in HIAS to train investigators to examine the stories of thousands of asylum seekers. Yet, HIAS has expressed disappointment with the results. The statistics speak for themselves. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in 2011 Israel approved one out of over 46,000 asylum requests, a result that no professionally credible system of review would generate.

The problem seems to begin at the top. Interior Minister Eli Yishai is on record stating that illegal migrant workers are a source of disease. Here is one of his responses to the riot:

We must put all these infiltrators behind bars in detention and holding centers, then send them home because they come and take work from Israelis.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Interior Minister Eli Yishai (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

It must be noted that Israel is currently building a facility for illicit migrants designed to house 15,000 — and it is by no means clear how the Interior Ministry would house 51,000 people who cannot be expelled

The lack of a viable policy to deal with the illicit migrant population presents a significant human rights challenge. The US government’s 2011 Country Report on Human Rights Practices (issued coincidentally, at the time of the riot) stated that Israel “continued to deny many asylum seekers individual refugee status determinations, which impacted their ability to work or receive basic social services, including health care.”

Clearly, systemic inability to see down the road on this most sensitive issue indicates that, at age 64, the Israeli political system remains a work in progress. In this sense, the riot in South Tel Aviv is of a piece with the conditions that led to the tent city protests last summer. Underlying both are the same flaws in how the country is governed, at least in terms of nonmilitary affairs. Lacking a truly transparent constituency system, political figures tend to represent interests of narrow political and socio-economic sectors. Thus the concerns of ordinary folk tend to fester until they reach critical mass and explode.

But we need to remember that Israel is not alone in facing illicit migration. Indeed, in comparative terms Israel’s situation is not one of the more difficult. Ultimately, Israel’s 60,000 illicit migrants are a very small portion of the illegal mass migration that is reshuffling global populations. If decisive steps are taken now, Israel’s challenge is still manageable. But it requires our leaders to replace blame and avoidance with clear thinking.