Largescale migrations occur when wars, unspeakable brutality and widespread poverty combine to compel people to abandon their homes and families in search of a safe haven. Often — as daily pictures from Europe tragically drive home – they pay the price of risking their very lives through drowning in overloaded boats or suffocating in airless trucks. The movement of desperate populations has not passed over Israel, which continues to systematically avoid crafting a viable policy towards the remaining asylum-seekers in its midst. Too many local and foreign interests have come together to perpetuate a thoroughly ineffective, unquestionably heartless and ultimately futile approach, which, with but a little effort, can be readily replaced by a sound, reasonable and humane alternative. In order to achieve this objective, the present government must consciously forego those narrow interests that have guided it in the past and move towards a design which is both morally defensible and practically workable.
The number of asylum-seekers knocking on Israel’s doors has dwindled substantially since the completion of the fence along the Egyptian border in late 2013 (down to a trickle of 54, to date in 2015). Their total number inside the country has declined with the repatriation of citizens to South Sudan, following its independence in 2011, and the introduction of legislation enabling their incarceration without trial, first in Saharonim and later in the Holot detention center. The Israeli High Court of Justice struck down the enabling provisions in the Infiltration Law three times: in 2013, then in 2014 and partially again last month, making it clear that the denial of freedom without cause is a violation of fundamental human rights — as well as an obvious contravention of international law. The 1,173 Africans detained beyond the one-year limit in Holot were released last week — although they have been denied work permits and prevented access to Tel Aviv, Eilat and de facto to other towns as well (most notably, Arad). They are roaming the country looking for shelter and minimal sustenance.
Israel today has 150,000 illegal residents: 90,000 are tourists who have overstayed their welcome, some 15,000 are foreign workers whose visas have expired, and the remaining 45,000 are Africans, the majority of whom cannot be returned to their countries and benefit from collective protection (73% are from Eritrea, 20% from Sudan). Israeli policies have targeted the African migrants — almost totally ignoring the far larger number of illegal residents from other countries.
Since March, 2015, Israel has attempted to step-up the relocation of Eritrean and Sudanese citizens to two African states — Rwanda and Uganda — where reports of maltreatment abound (the terms of the arrangements with these countries are still shrouded in mystery). In addition, the government has cracked down on businesses employing African asylum-seekers and has recently instructed the immigration authorities to detain all veteran migrants. Indeed, after the latest High Court ruling, the Minister of the Interior, Silvan Shalom, has declared that he will continue to press those policies that have denied asylum to refugees, as if persistence rather than reevaluation can, on its own, yield different results.
This by-now inexplicable obstinacy is driven by external as well as home-grown interests. Israel’s relations with Eritrea have blossomed since the latter’s independence in 1993, mostly for strategic reasons: Eritrea is positioned at the southernmost entry to the Red Sea. In 2014, Israel and Eritrea signed an agreement that gave Israel the right to maintain its base there in exchange for more than $1 billion in military hardware (including 30 aircraft and some 250 tanks). This is perhaps the most notable reason for Israel’s silence on the documented abuses of the dictatorial regime of President Isaias Afewerki, who has been the sole ruler of Eritrea for the past 22 years.
Eritrea is one of a handful of countries — along with Somalia, North Korea, Syria and Equatorial Guinea – that continuously closes the Freedom House index, failing on all scores of human, political and civil rights. The UN Human Rights Commission published a scathing 500-page report in June of this year detailing the extent of indefinite national service, forced labor, torture, rape and prolonged sexual servitude. Separate assessments by the US Department of State, the British government and key international NGOs have highlighted the agonizing state of affairs in that country for years. But in Israel, of the 5,573 requests for asylum submitted by Eritreans between 2009 and 2015 (until recently applications for asylum from nationals of this country were not accepted), only 4 (0.07%) were recognized. Silvan Shalom provided the (convoluted) rationale in an interview on the army radio last week: “I met with the Eritrean ambassador in Israel. It appears that there is no compulsory draft for 20 years. The obligation is only for 18 months….Anybody who returns has no problem living there.”
Clearly, strategic interests play a greater role than practically any other consideration in Israel’s refugee policy. Politically-motivated populist concerns on the domestic front are a close second. For the past six years, successive Netanyahu governments, with the vocal support of key Likud politicians, have thrived on spreading xenophobic fears against African refugees — mostly to cover up their total neglect of the socioeconomic problems of the downtrodden areas of the country — and especially of the systematically-ignored southern slums of Tel Aviv. Assertive measures against asylum-seekers serve a dual purpose: by diverting attention from its own inaction, the government has been able to continue to do nothing on the festering home front; and by fobbing off the ongoing crisis on foreigners — inevitably Black — it has been able to gain support for questionable steps that could not be justified under other circumstances.
The problem is that continuing on this course will only lead to further misery — both for Israel’s underprivileged and for those who have sought temporary shelter in the country. The starting point for a revised policy is the understanding that any reasoned approach to refugees must integrate their social and economic needs with those of Israeli citizens. In real terms, this means instituting the following five steps.
1. Grant refugee status to those who qualify
It is necessary to legalize bona fide asylum-seekers through the efficient processing of requests for status determination (RSDs) — something that has not been done in the past. Their indeterminate status to date has meant that practically every activity they perform is illegal by definition — encouraging the development of a survival sub-culture that inevitably breeds criminality.
2. Grant work work permits
Refugees and asylum-seekers must be provided with work permits. Many of the jobs they can fill are now being carried out by foreign workers at great cost. This will benefit certain sectors (tourism, agriculture) and disperse asylum-seekers more evenly throughout the country.
3. Strengthen poor neighborhoods
Special attention must be given to rehabilitating poorer areas of major cities — especially in Tel Aviv and its environs. Refugees have been used as an excuse for doing absolutely nothing to better social and economic conditions in these areas, breeding not only further immiseration but also intense intolerance and bigotry.
4. Rethink Israel-Africa ties
Adjustments in Israel’s policy towards Africa are in order. Past experience with dictatorships on the continent have hampered Israel’s relationships in the past and will, if not altered, do so in the future.
5. An ethical policy is also a smart policy
Most importantly, these steps have to be incorporated into a well-defined policy that meets the moral standards of human dignity ensconced not only in Israeli and international law, but also in Jewish tradition and history throughout the ages. This ethical stance also promises to be the most effective, since by devising ways to improve the well-being of asylum-seekers, it can also contribute to narrowing the indescribable gaps plaguing Israeli society today and altering the values that enable their perpetuation.
* * *
Illegal migration to Israel is a more contained phenomenon than in the past; its African dimension is even smaller than imagined. Its negative byproducts have been magnified beyond all reasonable proportion by a mixture of inaction, misguided interest, prejudice and sheer ignorance. These should, and can be, corrected forthwith by jettisoning failed measures and replacing them with readily available and eminently more humane steps. In the process, Israel might be able to show the way to a Europe that has yet to learn from its historical mistakes dating back eight decades and beyond.