RUTHIE BLUM: OUT OF AFRICA AND INTO ISRAEL
While much debate in Israel has been devoted to the issue of foreign workers and the status of their offspring, less attention has been paid to another group of aliens crossing Israel’s borders to seek refuge and find employment. Whereas the former is made up predominantly of migrants from the Philippines, Thailand and China, the latter hail from Africa.
Over the past two years, more than 60,000 “infiltrators,” mainly from Eritrea and Sudan, have snuck across the Egyptian border into the Sinai Desert. There, the Bedouin — who know a good business opportunity when they see one — have been taking advantage of their plight by charging them money (and sometimes robbing them of it) in exchange for transporting them into Israel.
Some of these Africans have remained in nearby Eilat, managing to find illegal employment in hotels and other establishments for which cheap labor trumps upholding the law.
A greater number moved to a low-income area in Tel Aviv, where they stuffed themselves into small apartments to share the rent, using their earnings from menial odd jobs.
Many of these (mostly male) newcomers are trying to gain official asylum under the U.N.’s Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Though very few are eligible for this status, the Eritreans cannot be deported.
According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Eritrea has grave internal problems, and thus the illegal immigrants must be defined as a “temporary humanitarian protection group.” (The fact that there are experts who dispute how dangerous a return to Eritrea would actually be for them is an entirely different discussion.)
Where the Sudanese are concerned, Israel has a justified fear that if they are returned to the Egyptian border from whence they came, they will be abused by Egyptian authorities — or, at the very least, returned to Sudan, where they will meet certain death. Out of deep worry for their welfare, the Israeli government grants them temporary residence permits, which require renewal every three months.
The tragic irony of Israel’s genuinely humanitarian approach to these asylum-seekers is that it has become yet another issue that is both causing tension within the country — and arousing external criticism.
As if Israel didn’t have enough trouble trying to contend with the assertion that it cannot remain both Jewish and democratic without separating from the Palestinians, it now has a new demographic problem to deal with. And, much like the situation with the Palestinians, this problem is not of Israel’s making, nor will Israel be able to come up with any solution that its detractors would find satisfactory.
A number of events in recent weeks have made it impossible for the government to keep stalling while a new status quo is being established — and there is no turning back.
Though it has been demonstrated statistically that the crime rate of African migrants is lower than the national average, there have been some high-profile rape and theft cases of late in which the defendants have been Sudanese and Eritreans. Also, because of the way they live in cramped quarters, their buildings tend to become even slummier than they were to begin with.
As a result, residents of the Tel Aviv neighborhood where most of them live have been complaining and protesting. In two separate incidents, thugs threw firebombs into apartments occupied by Eritrean and Sudanese migrants. This sparked an uproar among the broader public, and accusations of racism began to fly.
The non-violent majority of the neighborhood in question insists that racism has nothing to do with their distress. It is the crime and filth they can’t stand, they say, and they no longer feel safe around their homes in the daytime, let alone at night.
The responses issued by Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch were to say that the government should provide jobs for the migrants. This angered Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who said that this would be “one of the worst mistakes the government could make.” He also announced that the infiltrators “should be put into holding cells or jails and then given a grant and sent back.”
Minister Uzi Landau concurred, pointing out that this illegal immigration is “not a socio-economic problem, but a strategic one,” and a genuine security threat. These migrants are from predominantly Muslim countries, after all, and it is becoming increasingly clear that jihadist forces have caught on to the fact that they can send some of their people into Israel among the “asylum-seekers.”
Just what Israel needs inside its borders, while the rest of the Middle East is radicalizing and Iran is about to be allowed to enrich uranium for “non-military” purposes.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to all of the above was to say that he will do what it takes to curb the influx of the illegal migrants, proposing the completion of a security fence being built along the Egyptian border. When called to task for suggesting such a thing during a visit to Prague this week, he made sure to clarify that he has nothing against foreign workers; he’s only concerned that the 60,000 illegal African migrants “could easily reach 600,000.”
Now that a spotlight has been turned toward the issue by the press, it is the subject of many a Hebrew talk show. The one thing nobody seems to mention, however, is that Israel, no matter how demonized from the outside and underappreciated from within, is a place where people come to feel safe.
Too bad more Diaspora Jews don’t see it that way.
Ruthie Blum, a former senior editor at The Jerusalem Post, is the author of “Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring,’” to be released by RVP Press in the summer.
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