Constructive Dialogue on Asylum Seekers in Israel

The debate over the deportation of asylum seekers in Israel to Rwanda has caused passions to flare and slogans to trump (no pun intended) fact. With the hope of creating a more constructive discussion, I would like to address some of the concerns expressed about the asylum seekers’ presence in Israel in what I hope is a respectful and helpful manner.

“Look what’s happening in Europe – it’s being taken over by foreigners. The same thing will happen here.”

Europe is indeed dealing with a migration crisis. However the situation  is different than that in Israel in almost every imaginable parameter. First and foremost, the massive majority of foreign nationals in European nations are not, and never claimed to be, asylum seekers. In countries such as the UK and France for example, almost all foreign nationals are from former British and French colonies who were allowed to immigrate for a variety of reasons that include the colonizer’s guilt after ruthlessly exploiting their colonies, and independence agreements, that included provisions for collaborators. Since Israel has never colonized Eritrea or Sudan, drawing parallels between the situations is not constructive.

Likewise, Europe is suffering from a plummeting birth rate. This has caused a labor shortage that necessitates the importation of young workers, primarily for menial roles. As the birth rate continues to plummet and the demand for foreign workers continues to rise, demographics are changing drastically in many European countries. Israel, with a birth rate of over three children per woman and a very young population, does not have a similar demographic problem. Absorbing a reasonable number of asylum seekers into Israel’s burgeoning population, would have a minimal, if any, demographic impact.

“They’re from Africa, and everything is fine in Rwanda, why shouldn’t they go there?”

Africa is not a country, it’s a continent, just like Europe, Asia and the Americas. It would seem absurd to deport a Afghan national to, let’s say Laos, just because it happens to be on his/her home continent. What would an Afghan person do in Laos? They would not be able to speak the local language, wouldn’t be familiar with the local culture, would have no support system or resources and would be extremely vulnerable to exploitation, especially in a country whose own citizens suffer from extreme poverty. It is equally impractical to deport Eritreans or Sudanese to Rwanda, an extremely poor country, with staggering unemployment and minimal resources to support its own population or the quarter million refugees from Congo and Burundi that it has already taken in, let alone asylum seekers from Israel. Rwanda has not acknowledged that they will accept the refugees from Israel, and theories regarding why Rwanda would agree to such a thing include a pay-off of billions (from Israeli taxpayers) and Israel voting with Rwanda in the UN to advance a historically inaccurate narrative of the Rwandan genocide.

Coming in at the bottom of the food chain, it is highly unlikely that an Eritrean refugee would be able to meet his/her most basic needs in Rwanda, and refugees who were sent there in the past were abandoned with no official status or plausible way to survive. A wealthy country like Israel, dumping the burden of caring for refugees on a poor country such as Rwanda, is unreasonable if not morally repugnant.

“They’re work migrants, not asylum seekers.”

In order to determine who is truly an asylum seeker according to the UN treaty on refugees to which Israel is a signatory, Israel must set up a clear and effective vetting process, as all other OECD countries have done. Unfortunately, Israel has vetted less than 1% of the asylum seekers in the past decade, preferring a policy of an “Italian strike”- publicly claiming to check the files, but in actuality, simply sitting on them. Many government officials have claimed that they have reviewed the requests, but have been unable to provide proof to that effect. Only 10 of the tens of thousands of requests submitted by Eritreans have in fact been approved, and the vast majority have received no response whatsoever. Furthermore, if the Eritreans and Sudanese are work migrants, why isn’t Israel repatriating them to their home countries? Israel recognizes that return to Sudan or Eritrea would be a death sentence, even as it publicly claims otherwise. In other Western countries, the approval rate of requests for asylum among Eritreans is between 60-95%.

If Israel were to check individual files using the accepted criteria, and deport persons who were determined to be work migrants, that would be completely legitimate and within the parameters of the international treaties to which it is a signatory. Simply refusing to vet the refugees, and classifying them en masse based on political fervor and not facts, is not.

Likewise, according to statistics provided by the Israeli Ministry of Interior, there are over 80,000 illegal foreign workers in Israel from places like the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Asia and South America, who do not even claim to be asylum seekers. If Israel has decided to crack down on illegal workers, why not start with those who do not come from horrific dictatorships and are clearly in Israel only for economic reasons? Taking no action against them, while claiming that Eritreans and Sudanese are work migrants negates this claim.

“The poor of your city”

I addressed this issue at length here. Israel is going through a process of transition from being a poor country, in need of aid, to being part of the global elite, with its privileges as well as its responsibilities. All OECD member countries have internal poverty- Israel is not unique in that aspect. Yet having above-average wealth, they are also committed to making a small contribution to the greater global good. Israel can’t accept the privileges and exempt itself from the responsibilities of global leadership. Trying to get away with it in a series of ploys (such as writing off the cost of running the prison in Holot as “humanitarian aid” when reporting to the OECD) will not benefit Israel and its image in the long term.

In addition, without getting into the nitty gritty of the Talmudic text, “the poor of your city first” (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 71A) is a text that has been quoted out of context and severely misappropriated. Part of a Talmudic discussion on loans, it only claims preference for local support if all other parameters are equal. Likewise, there are countless Jewish texts, many of which are biblical, that mandate care for the stranger. Why is “the poor of your city first” quoted ad nauseum, while a text like Deuteronomy 23:15-16 “If slaves should escape from their masters and take refuge with you, you must not hand them over to their masters. He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your towns where it pleases him; you shall not oppress him,”  is ignored? What makes a Talmudic text taken out of context more valid than a biblical one?

Lastly, Israel is wasting enormous resources on imprisoning the asylum seekers (see below). These are resources that could instead be utilized to the benefit of Israel’s poor. The current policy is actually detrimental to Israel’s needy residents.

“They’re dangerous.”

Despite demagogic claims made by some of Israel’s most stellar politicians, the crime rate among asylum seekers is actually lower than that in the general public. It’s also safe to assume that if they were given the opportunity to work legally, and able to support themselves legally, property crime rates would drop even further.

“There are millions of needy people in Africa- we’ll be inundated.”

There are millions of needy people in Africa, but despite their poverty, the majority have no desire to leave their homes, families and communities, and face the dangers of the human traffickers and torturers of the Sinai for an uncertain future in a strange land. Although other East African countries such as Somalia, Burundi, Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania etc face extreme poverty, their citizens are not arriving on our doorsteps en masse. Israel’s refugees are almost exclusively from two war-torn countries suffering from some of the world’s worst humanitarian crises- Sudan and Eritrea.

Should Israel, a small country, be burdened with the sole responsibility for the refugees of Eritrea and Sudan? Of course not. When a large refugee population is created, developed countries generally agree to accept a certain quota, each according to their capacity. It would be very reasonable for Israel to agree to take a certain number, and demand that other wealthy countries, who have the resources to absorb refugees, take the others. Simply refusing to share the burden that has fallen on all Western countries due to many complex geopolitical issues, does not speak well for Israel diplomatically or morally.

“Refugees will be a burden on Israel.”

Actually, they don’t have to be. Throwing able-bodied, healthy, young people into jail for years at a time is what has turned them into a burden on the Israeli taxpayer. The Israeli market is desperate for workers in agriculture, construction, care-giving and hotel services- the leadership of the hospitality industry has been very vocal about the damage that will be done to their field by deporting its workers. Rather than incurring the costs of importing workers from the Philippines, Thailand, China, Romania etc to fill the demand, while paying tens of millions of shekels a year to imprison the Africans, the asylum seekers could easily be trained to meet the market needs, paying taxes and killing two birds with one stone, saving enormous expenses to the Israeli tax payer.

So why isn’t Israel effectively utilizing the manpower of the asylum seekers? There are two reasons, neither of which are morally or legally justifiable.

1) HR company business interests

There is an industry of HR companies who recruit, train and place Israel’s foreign workers. The industry is known for its exploitation of the workers, often taking usurious fees of over $10,000 per placement, and then refusing to find the worker another job if he/she loses the initial one (for example, in situations where the caregiver’s patient dies). Although Israel has cracked down on the most exploitative practices, it’s still a booming business. Allowing asylum seekers who are already in Israel to fill the open positions would essentially kill a hen that lays golden eggs for the HR companies. Therefore they lobby aggressively to keep that from happening and the cost of their greed falls on the Israeli taxpayer.

2) Racism

Israelis have become accustomed to Asians in their homes, caring for their loved ones, and in the fields, picking their produce. Yet they are unwilling to have Africans perform the same tasks. It is of course impossible to prove this point, as most people won’t admit that they prefer Asians over Africans. Yet it’s enough to see their horrified faces when the idea is even suggested to guess what is motivating them.

I would be happy to discuss any of these points with people who have concerns regarding asylum seekers. I also strongly recommend taking the time to speak to the asylum seekers themselves, hear their testimonies, and learn about the situation in Eritrea, Sudan and in Rwanda in depth. Your position on the issue may not change, but your perspective might. I look forward to hearing your constructive suggestions on how to solve this complex problem in an effective and morally-acceptable manner.

About the Author
After having several life-changing educational experiences in her teens, Elana Kaminka has dedicated her career to creating those experiences for others. Originally working in the field of Israel programs, she became fascinated by the field of development and is now working in Tevel b'Tzedek, an Israeli NGO that both runs quality volunteer programs and does quality development work in Nepal.
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