Israel’s decision to expel illegal immigrants (and to redirect some of them to third countries) has aroused fierce criticism both in Israel and abroad. The debate about this contentious issue is welcome, but it must be fair and grounded in facts.
There are 37,288 illegal immigrants in Israel. 71% of them are from Eritrea, 21% from Sudan, 7% from other African countries, and 1% from non-African countries. Most entered Israel illegally from Sinai between 2006 and 2012, and many live in south Tel-Aviv. Illegal entry into Israel from Sinai during those years was possible because the border between Israel and Egypt was only marked by a low and easily trespassed fence. In 2010, Israel began the construction of an impregnable barrier which was completed in 2013. This barrier has put an end to illegal immigration.
Like other signatories of the UN’s Refugees Convention (1951), Israel is bound to grant refugee status to people who flee “genocide, war, persecution, and slavery to dictatorial regimes.” It did so in 1977 when it accepted Vietnamese “boat people” rejected by other countries. It has been doing so for the small percentage of African migrants who are actual asylum seekers. Eritrean immigrants claim the status of refugee based on the harshness of military service in Eritrea. This claim has been rejected by the Swiss government, for reasons that the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) mostly justified in its 2016 report. As for Sudanese immigrants, they reached Israel via Egypt — a country where their lives were generally no longer in danger. Israel does consider the Sudanese from Darfur a special case, however, which is why the Israeli government has granted temporary resident status so far to 500 Darfur refugees, and has promised to speed up the RSD (Refugee Status Determination) process for other Darfur refugees.
Israel could theoretically keep illegal work migrants for altruistic reasons (as advocated mainly by American Jewish groups), but the Israeli government, like any responsible and answerable government, must also (some would argue primarily) take into account the well-being of its own citizens. South Tel-Aviv residents are the victims of rising crime rates and of deteriorating living conditions. They, too, have human rights. Some claim that illegal immigrants should be spread out throughout the country to relieve southern Tel-Aviv. Yet when the Israeli government tried to do just that (in 2009), the Association of Civil Rights in Israel petitioned the High Court of Justice against this policy, claiming that it infringed upon the freedom of movement.
Moreover, as opposed to large and ageing countries such as Germany and Japan, Israel is a small and densely populated country with high birthrates, and therefore it neither has the need nor the capacity to legalize illegal work migration. Hence does Israel send illegal immigrants back to their countries when they are not eligible for refugee status. Israel is only expelling illegal immigrants who are single, and it has made clear that it will not expel families.
Israel is far from being the only democracy that sends back illegal immigrants. The United States expels 400,000 illegal immigrants every year. Germany has been sending back illegal immigrants to Afghanistan, and Italy to Sudan. In 2017, Germany expelled 80,000 illegal immigrants. Starting February 2018, the German government will pay illegal immigrants € 3,000 as an incentive to return to their respective countries. This policy is consistent with the guidelines of the European Council, which stated on 19 October 2017 that it is favorable to “voluntary resettlement schemes” for illegal immigrants.
Some claim that Israel is only expelling illegal immigrants from Africa but not from eastern Europe. This accusation is both malicious and false. In 2017, Israel expelled far more illegal immigrants from the Ukraine (3,361) and from Georgia (844) than from Ethiopia (40). Israel is the only country in the world that brought in Africans (Ethiopian Jews in 1985 and in 1991), not to enslave them but to make them free.
Israel cannot send back illegal Sudanese immigrants to their country because Israel and Sudan do not have diplomatic relations. This is why Israel is redirecting some illegal Sudanese immigrants to third countries such as Uganda and Rwanda (and granting them a $3,500 stipend, which covers a year-and-a-half of income). Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled in December 2017 that: a. The UN refugee convention allows the redirection of immigrants to third countries when their lives are not in danger in those countries, and b. that there is no evidence that the immigrants’ lives will be in danger in Rwanda and in Uganda. Israel is not the only democracy that redirects illegal immigrants to third countries. Australia, for example, routinely redirects illegal immigrants to Papua New Guinea.
Israel is a safe haven to all Jews, as well as to non-Jewish asylum seekers who meet the criteria of the Refugee Convention — which most illegal immigrants don’t. Israel’s policy is consistent with international law and with the practice of other democracies, and it should not be judged by higher standards.