Last week, the dubious distinction of housing one of the world’s largest detention facilities moved one step closer towards reality for Israel. The National Council for Construction and Planning gave its approval for the construction of a huge detention center in the South, slated to house up to 11,000 African migrants expected to enter the country in the coming months. Prime Minister Netanyahu has boasted that construction of the mega-facility is a decisive action, proving that “this Government, unlike its predecessors, acts.” In reality, though, it is nothing more than an expensive cosmetic quick-fix. Although the detention camp may move the problem of African migration out of sight, it avoids any real solution for a community which keeps on growing.
There are an estimated 40-50,000 Africans currently residing in Israel, mainly from war-torn Sudan and Eritrea. With around 2,000 clambering across Israel’s southern border with Egypt each month, the flow of migrants shows little sign of slowing. Few dispute that this is an untenable situation. Clearly no country, Israel included, is obliged to open its borders and accept all-comers. On the other hand, Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s claim that all Africans in Israel are opportunistic workers, that none deserve asylum and that every “last of the infiltrators return to their countries” is equally ludicrous. It ignores the reality of those fleeing terrifying tribal violence in Sudan and Eritreans persecuted because of their religion or refusal to serve in the army. Prime Minister Netanyahu has rightly emphasized that refugees fleeing for their lives must be afforded protection in Israel.
The real problem is that until now, Israel has made an embarrassingly bad job of making the critical distinction between refugees and migrant workers and shows no sign of doing so. Incredibly, since 2008, only 17 Africans have been granted asylum in Israel. This paltry number is not the result of a rigorous process, but rather the consequence of there being little or no process at all. According to Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law, from roughly 34,000 asylum seekers in Israel, just 3,211 applications were processed during 2008 and 2009, with only 3 requests granted.
Voluntary organizations report that the application procedure is highly inefficient, typically lasting years. For Eritreans and Sudanese, who comprise the bulk of Africans in Israel, the prospect of asylum is made virtually impossible by the fact that they are granted ‘temporary protection’, by virtue of their nationality. This grants them a safeguard against deportation, but no other rights. Crucially, as they are already ‘protected’, they cannot apply for refugee status, leaving them in an anxious state of limbo. Given the almost total absence of officially recognized refugees in Israel, Bibi’s promise to protect them is entirely hollow. It is rendered even more meaningless by recently introduced legislation which allows for detention of up to three years for all those who illegally enter Israel, regardless of their motivation. Under the new law, no distinction is made between refugees and economic migrants, all are to be considered “infiltrators.”
And of course, the “infiltrators” will be housed in the government’s brand new shiny detention center in the desert. Netanyahu would have us believe that the giant facility is part of a coherent plan to tackle a problem that has been avoided until now. According to the Prime Minister’s Bureau, the prospect of detention is designed to stifle the economic incentive to cross the border into Israel. However, in the same breath, we are also told that facilities at the complex will include computer labs, a hair salon, sports areas and kindergartens. Is this really likely to deter those desperate for an alternative to African squalor? The shockingly frequent instances of torture, rape and abuse on the journey to our “promised land” have yet to stem the flow of Africans. It is almost laughable to think that a detention center brimming with amenities will have the desired effect.
The reality is that the detention complex will be nothing more than an expensive facade (at an estimated cost of NIS 250 million to the taxpayer). Far from resolving the issue of African migration, it will merely shift the problem out of public view deep into the desert. Out of public sight, out of the public mind, or so the government likely hopes.
But, as with all cosmetic solutions, it will only succeed in thinly veiling reality. No amount of money spent on costly border fences or detention centers can substitute for a sensible and sophisticated approach to the issue. The flawed mindset which currently views the plight of Africans as a zero sum game where all must stay or all must go, must be replaced with a real attempt to identify and afford rights to refugees. A robust system to efficiently process asylum applications is desperately needed, where refuge can be granted to those who require it and economic opportunists rejected.
Making this clear distinction would help dispel the current cloud of ambiguity under which economic migrants can ride on the coattails of genuine refugees all the way to Tel Aviv. It would be immeasurably more effective than a swanky detention facility in deterring those merely looking for work. In a country founded partly as a safe haven for Jewish refugees, an asylum system which protects the persecuted must be the answer to African migration.