Yes, to remuneration with repatriation

Writing a rebuttal to a “straight” news report in the English language press in Israel on the issue of the Eritrean community in South Tel Aviv is a thankless task. More likely, anything written will be mothballed and buried at best. At worst you might be labeled a “racist” or a “xenophobe”. Still, here’s my shot.

There are many problems with Jacob Magid’s “To survive pandemic, migrants ask government to return money taken from them“. The subject is very relevant and deserves serious attention. Unfortunately, instead of giving the reader background information and a balanced picture, we receive what could be a handout from ASSAF – Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel. There is no discussion about why it is important not to release all or some of the monies withheld under the Deposit Law (2017), what was the rationale of the law nor is there any comment from Yonatan Jakubowicz, Executive Director of the Israel Immigration Policy Center, who initiated the bill that became the law.

…. Yonatan Jakubowicz, Executive Director of the Israel Immigration Policy Center, who initiated the bill: “These statistics prove that the law is achieving its goal, and that the more time passes and the more the money adds up, we see an even more significant number of those leaving. After we closed the Holot Detention Center, the law became even more important, since it became the only tool to remove infiltrators from Israel. In addition, one-third of Eritrea’s gross national income comes from the money sent by expatriates around the world, and a total of 300 million NIS ($8,4190,500) collected in the fund may well bring about a change in the Eritrean government’s policy. The government must invest all the resources necessary in order to enforce the law.” http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/265719

Reducing the issue to the level of a “human interest” story tells only one side of the issue and that in a way that can only be called manipulative and unprofessional.

As stated, there are around 36 thousand African asylum seekers/ illegal infiltrators in Israel. This is a big reduction from the over 60 thousand infiltrators who arrived in Israel from Eritrea and Sudan from the years 2006 till today (the bulk arriving in the years 2010-2012). Over the years, some of the infiltrators have received temporary residence permits, others have left of their own accord. Since the year 2018, approximately 1500 African migrants have voluntarily reclaimed their deposits and have repatriated themselves to their country of origin. In addition to the 36 thousand African migrants in Israel, it is estimated that there are another eight thousand children, many of who were born in Israel.

As to the Deposit Law itself, after repeated attempts by the Knesset to pass laws to discourage the arrival of new infiltrators and to encourage those in Israel to leave, there is no real alternative. In the year 2008 the High Court, after being petitioned by NIF funded groups in Israel, struck down the policy of “hot return” forcing Israel to accept the migrants to remain in her borders. In 2013 the High Court forbade (again after being petitioned by “refugee” groups) the incarceration of migrants in Sahronim Prison. In 2017, after another ruling by the High Court, the government closed the Holot detention Center, but further petitions also ruled out deporting migrants to a third country. What remains of all the laws passed and annulled is the Deposit Law, barely effective, not universally enforced and hardly adequate.

Now with the COVID-19 or Wuhan virus raging through Israel, most of the African migrants have been left without a regular income and that indeed is a problem. What is worse, those who have lost their jobs will be hard-pressed to find new employment anytime soon, for tourism will be the last industry to probably recover. As restaurants and hotels are highly dependent on tourism, much of the work that was filled by migrants will not be available. Beyond that, if before January, the level of unemployment was very low (around 3%), even after a partial return to normalcy it is unlikely that unemployment will drop much below 10% anytime soon. The jobs that will become available will, by all right, be filled first by Israeli citizens. The needs of the migrants will come last.

One obvious solution would be for the African migrants to receive their deposits and to willing repatriate to their origin countries, or anywhere else that would accept them. The money is available, or even if not, the State can borrow it and will still come out spending less over the long haul. Those unwilling to leave can become dependent on charity if they so choose. As heartless as this sounds, it is a far better alternative than to give a paltry stipend of less than 3000 NIS and then expelling them penniless, or worse leaving them in Israel after their security deposits are exhausted and without them having a monetary incentive to leave. Best if the government would now take active measures to return as many migrants as possible to their countries. Enlarged monetary incentives, free flights, medical exams (to prevent to spread of the virus) and pressure on Eretria to accept the migrants are necessary.

Returning to Magid’s recycled handout, there are a few questions and clarifications. First, ASSAF has a yearly budget of around four million NIS (about a million USD), of which half goes to salary and the rest to various activities. It is just one of several of the NGOs that deal wholly or partially with the rights and welfare of the migrant community. In the past, these NGOs have repeatedly petitioned the High Court and have successfully frustrated any solution to the migrant problem in Israel. They have also sallied various pabulums concerning the migrant community.

They claim that African migrants are asylum seekers or refugees.

There are definitions of what makes someone a refugee and for most, the Eritreans do not fulfill the criteria. The great majority were neither imprisoned for their political views nor persecuted because of their religion or tribal affiliation. They also did not suffice to escape persecution by staying in Sudan or Egypt but continued to Israel. I call them economic migrants who came to Israel seeking a better life.

They claim that African migrants are victims.

I do not claim that the lot of the Eritreans is easy. The majority work long hours at difficult or menial jobs, many are single men and live in apartments that have few amenities. Yet there are also many married and with children. Israeli society, while not perfect, affords the migrants rights, access to health care and education for their children. Those that remain evidently know why they are here. Unfortunately, there are Israelis that take advantage of the migrants and charge high rents for dilapidated apartments or unscrupulous employers who profit at the expense of their migrant workers. Still, the insistence on portraying the migrants as victims stems from a type of misplaced guilt or virtue signaling. Making the migrants victims, rather than the Israelis who live in South Tel Aviv and who have seen their neighborhoods deteriorate and the crime rate soar, is worthy of academic study. In truth, the victim/oppressor narrative needs to be discarded.

They claim they are law-abiding and presently abiding of the quarantine restrictions.

What they ignore is that while the majority may be indeed law-abiding, there is a small, yet troublesome minority that engages in criminal activity, have unauthorized and even illegal businesses, flaunt quarantine restrictions and make life dangerous, if not intolerable for the Israeli citizens in South Tel Aviv. Shefi Paz and the South Tel Aviv Liberation Front regularly post on YouTube videos highlighting the illegal behavior of some of the migrants and usually, they are blithely ignored by the media.

They claim that the migrant community is not a burden on the public purse nor that they take jobs from Israelis.

For the most, this claim is irrelevant and now proven to be quite false. Even if the Israeli economy was, at least a few months ago, dependent on extra labor for restaurants and hotels, there were other sources for that labor: Arabs from Judea and Samaria or legal foreign workers with permits. Illegal migrants who work and raise children in Israel are a net burden on the economy, taking more than they return. Without work, the migrants are totally dependent on the public purse.

In short, if the migrants are staying then someone should better start raising money to support them. And that “someone” should not be the State for it isn’t Israel’s responsibility. I would suggest that first and foremost that those who have worked so hard to prevent the State from repatriating the migrants, have compared, maliciously, the migrants to Jews of the Holocaust, or have pledged to hide migrants “in their attics” or in their kibbutzim to prevent the migrants return to their home countries, now open their pockets and pay for their folly. With them, the city of Tel Aviv, the landlords and the business owners who profited from the migrants’ labor should also now pay their fair share.

Second, regarding Magid’s report, I would expect a bit more fact-checking. Eden Tesfamariam is listed as an employee of ASSAF as Translator and Community Mediator, she is also, at least by what I have seen, also the director of the  Eritrean Women’s Community Center. Whether this omission is intentional or not, it colors the readers’ perception, soliciting the reader’s sympathy. As for Tesfamariam’s snide comment “When there’s a regime change and democracy in Eritrea, we’ll return there and share how much we suffered here”, one can only reply that there is little chance of democracy thriving in Eritrea, but since she is employed, we will not press her to leave anytime soon. She is welcome to stay, for now, lack of gratitude or not.

About the Author
Shlomo Toren has been a resident of Israel since 1980, and a transportation planner for the last 25 years. He has done demand modeling for the Jerusalem Light Rail and Road 6. He is married to Neera and lives in Shiloh.
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