Israelis' wrestling with the issue of illegal immigrants is no less complicated, and maybe a bit more so than in other developed countries.
As the one developed country with a land border with Africa, Israel is bound to have a problem. No matter how difficult life may be here, there are a couple of hundred million Africans who may view this as Paradise, even apart from those religious Christians of Africa who do not believe that Israel and Jerusalem are real places on earth.
Before Israel fenced off its long desert border with Egypt, there were several thousand coming each year, and sometimes each month. Their trip was onerous and expensive, and sometimes ended with death at the hands of Egyptian police or at the hands of Egyptian physicians, to whom they were sold by their Bedouin guides for the harvesting of organs.
The fence has pretty much stopped the flow, except for a tiny number who somehow make it here.
What to do with those here is the issue.
Recently they were chosen as the flavor of the month by Israeli human rights activists, who have joined with some of the veteran migrants who have learned Hebrew and are educated, along with money from foreign government budgets devoted to human rights. They organized several days of demonstrations in Tel Aviv, where most of the migrants live, and one day when some 10,000 came on 300 buses to Jerusalem for a demonstration across the plaza from the Knesset.
Those working, illegally, declared themselves on strike, which led the restaurants and hotels that employ most of them to complain about unmade beds and unwashed dishes.
Numbers are not precise. We have heard about somewhere between 50- and 60,000, most of them saying they are from Eritrea or Sudan, and claiming that they fled oppression and danger, and would face great harm or death if returned.
Activists are accusing the Israeli government of ignoring them and their rights under international law. Only a few hundred are said to have had their claims of refugee status examined, and only a handful actually granted refugee status, which comes with the rights to work and receive social benefits.
Israel has treated them as illegal migrants seeking work. Policymakers and the justices of the Supreme Court have gone back and forth on issues of herding them into prisons, or open confinement with several hours per day of freedom, but located in the Negev desert. Currently those facilities contain at most some 10 percent of the African migrants.
Migrants are not allowed to work, but many or most of them do, typically as menial workers in the hotels of Eilat or as dishwashers, cooks, cleaners, gardeners, gas station attendants or some other lowly task in or near Tel Aviv. Most of those not being confined live in South Tel Aviv, and there have been enough cases of violence against the low income Israelis of the area to make their crimes a prominent national issue.
Israel has sent several thousand on voluntary repatriation, sweetened with a financial grant for resettlement. Some have gone to their home countries, while some have gone to other African countries willing to take them, seemingly in exchange for government-to-government payments or other favors. A few have gone to European countries willing to take them.
Their flights have often been accompanied by activists' charges that Israel has applied undue pressure to the migrants, and that their willingness to go elsewhere has not been entirely voluntary.
It should all sound familiar to Americans, accustomed to blaming Central American and Caribbean illegals for crime, increasing the overall cost of medical care and causing congestion in Emergency Rooms, yet depending on them for gardening, washing cars and dishes in restaurants, as well as care for children and the elderly,
Complicating the issue is what may be as many as 120,000 other individuals here illegally, either having overstayed their tourist visas or having been legal laborers from the Far East or the Balkans who did not return home when their contracts ended. Occasionally one hears of such a person being deported, but they are not been as clearly identified, concentrated, or problematic as the African migrants.
Individuals have created families, either with mates of their own ethnicity or with Israelis. Some Africans came as couples. Some of their children go to Israelis schools, or to classes arranged by migrants or Israeli activists.
Hypocrisy may be more prominent in this field of public policy than elsewhere. Here, in the US, and throughout Western Europe, illegal immigrants are a favorite target for politicians standing tall for legality, union leaders claiming that they take jobs from natives, along with businesses that profit from easily disciplined employees who are likely to be receiving less than minimum wage. Laws are enforced sporadically. Bad luck for those who happened to fall into the nets of immigration authorities with the power to incarcerate and deport.
The US is among the few countries that grant citizenship to all who are born within its borders. As a result, there are emotion-grabbing issues of parents seized, who face the choice of leaving children behind as they are sent back to where they came from.
Israel's problems lie in the lack of diplomatic relations with one country (Sudan) that supplies a sizable number of its migrants, and whose chaos might present the best case of them suffering harm if sent back. Among the complications are migrants claiming to be Sudanese from the chaotic region of Dafur, sure to be killed if sent back, who were found to be from Ghana or Nigeria. Few of the migrants come with official documents, making it difficult to know for sure their place of origin.
The largest group of Africans say they are Eritreans, and say that they fled a regime whose cruelty is comparable to that of North Korea.. Eritrean officials have denied the charge, and have waffled over their willingness to acknowledge that individuals are Eritrean, to welcome them back, or assure their safety.
Comparison with other countries' treatment of illegal immigrants finds Israel somewhere in the wide middle. Australia comes in for more criticism from local and other human rights activists, due to sending its illegals to what are described as inhuman conditions on distant Pacific islands, and turning back crowded and leaky boats without giving them a chance to reach shore..
Israeli activists raise the issue of the Jews' own experiences as refugees, and being denied entry by the US and other places of potential refuge when Nazi death squads were already well known.
However, even some of the most outspoken of Israel's human rights activists recognize the problems of caused by the migrants in South Tel Aviv. The older and poorer natives who live there have come to fear the migrants. There is some dispute as to whether the migrants are more or less inclined to be thieves, rapists, and murders than Israelis.
The various treaties and other agreements that stand as international law are not all that clear. By some interpretations, they provide rights only in the first country that a claimant of refugee status reaches after leaving home. That is more likely to be Egypt than Israel, leading some Israelis to demand that they be sent over the border. But also in the various documents are assertions that a country not return a claimant to a place of danger. By some views, Egypt would qualify as dangerous.
Charges of racism directed at Israeli policymakers come up against the several hundred thousand Ethiopians who were brought to Israel and provided citizenship, housing, medical care, and other social benefits at public expense.
That, too, is an subject tangled with arguments as to whether any should have been allowed to come as Jews, or whether additional Ethiopians claiming family connections ought to be allowed in.
When they were collectively declared to be Jews, some scholars said it was more the result of rabbinical inspiration than ethnographic research. Nevertheless. the have been welcomed officially as Jews, including those with crosses tattooed on their foreheads. Authorities have agreed to accept relatives of those already here whose claims of being Jews are even more doubtful. There have been periodic assertions by officials that all those qualified have been accepted, followed by demands of those already here that siblings, parents, or cousins have been denied entry. We have heard officials claiming, more than once, that the last of the entitled Ethiopians has been admitted.
No doubt some Ethiopians have suffered from the racism of individual Israelis. There are occasional demonstrations demanding greater benefits or more equal treatment. As in the case of other immigrant communities from poor backgrounds, those who came as children, or were born here, have done better than their parents. Individuals have become prominent in various professional fields, and it is not uncommon to see mixed couples.
Neither peace nor quiet is on our horizon.
Click here to return to Blog home page