The migrant crisis - another baffling headache for Israel

  • Refugees-22
​Europe’s migrant crisis is far from over. The United Nations is warning that only 10 per cent of those currently on the move from Africa, Asia and the Middle East have reached the continent - eight to 10 million are still on their way. A very small number appear to be genuine refugees, fleeing warzones.
by PAULA SLIER | Sep 14, 2017

Europe is grappling with a problem that for years now, Jerusalem, on a much smaller scale, has been trying to solve. Tens of thousands of Africans have entered Israel illegally and the population is divided over whether they are legitimate asylum seekers or economic migrants.

Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, thinks the latter. He’s vowed to “remove illegal aliens who don’t belong here”. Some right-wingers have gone so far as to call them “a cancer”.

“A country within a country,” the Israeli Immigration officer groans as we drive through the streets of south Tel Aviv. I’m sitting in the back of a police van and the shop signs are changing from Hebrew to Tigrinya (Eritrean language) as the streets become more grimy and the buildings more rundown.

A former cinema is now a shopping centre blaring reggae music, while hairdressers, bars and cafes donning the sidewalk, serve African dishes and sell traditional clothes.

According to the African Refugee Development Centre, there are more than 45 000 Africans in Israel, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan. The migrants insist they’re asylum seekers, fleeing conflict, persecution and even genocide, in their home countries. Their stories of oppression and war are harrowing.

Salah tells me he arrived in Israel from Darfur nine years ago on foot. Like hundreds of thousands before him he made the arduous journey from Sudan to Egypt to Israel after paying Bedouins the equivalent of three thousand rands to smuggle him in. His son was born in Israel, speaks only Hebrew, has Israeli friends and identifies as Israeli. But like his father, he could be deported at any time.

Steven arrived from Nigeria on a tourist visa and then decided to stay on to train as a missionary. Two years later his plans fell apart when he became a victim of a Palestinian suicide bombing and lost the ability to walk properly. He now struggles to find work.

I meet him in a rundown room in the back of an apartment block in south Tel Aviv. The only reason he’s still in the country is because he’s taking the Israeli government to court for compensation and is engaged to an Israeli woman.

Many Israelis are abhorred by their country’s treatment of these black foreigners. They argue that Israel was founded by – and for – refugees and as such has a moral obligation to assist people seeking asylum.

What’s more, they point out, their numbers are not that high and Israel’s response has been minimal - approving fewer than one per cent of asylum applications since it signed the UN Refugee Convention six decades ago. 

Then of course there’s the race card – Filipinos and Chinese and other foreigners are not treated as badly, some tell me. African migrants are frustrated and have held protests in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, holding up banners reading: “Black lives matter,” and “Don’t force us to leave and look for refuge elsewhere”.

But “South Tel Aviv is now South Sudan”, a pensioner living in the area bemoans. She tells me: “I’m afraid to leave my apartment and we had two rapes not so long ago in one of the alleyways. I put my life in danger every time I walk out of my building.”

Many Israelis blame the spike in crime on these migrants. They insist they're not genuine refugees but rather people looking for economic opportunities. Israel, they say, has taken in a lot of foreigners relative to its size and it’s unfair for critics to focus on her when there are many other countries who’ve taken in far less.

In trying to deal with the problem, seven years ago Jerusalem built a fence along her border with Egypt. She now directs many of the foreigners to a desert detention facility and in a largely unprecedented move in the Western world, also sends them to third-party countries in Africa.

This is often argued to be inconsistent with international law and the 1951 convention on refugees – to which Israel is a party. Some of the refugees transported from Israel to Rwanda and Uganda, have reportedly been declined legal papers on arrival, been threatened with repatriation back to their homeland and not been given promised assistance from the Israeli authorities.

Recently, the High Court of Justice ruled Jerusalem could continue with this controversial practice but only so long as the third country was safe. It also said the government could not jail those who refuse to go, for more than 60 days. Both human rights groups and the government are unhappy.

Several thousand Africans have left Israel over the years; many of those who remain have learnt Hebrew and work in restaurants, hotels and other services, which Israelis do not want to do.

On Monday, the Israeli justice minister proposed that Palestinians in the West Bank should be encouraged to replace these Africans. It would help improve the Palestinian economy and contribute to coexistence between the sides, she argued.

Palestinians were once employed in these sectors but their numbers were cut back over the years because of security considerations. The problem with the minister's suggestion is that there are no indications these threats have been sufficiently dealt with. By comparison, the Africans do not pose - or haven't so far - security risks to the Jewish State.

As Europe looks for a solution to the refugee crisis, she's now employing some of the practices Jerusalem has already tried - tightening borders and deporting people.

These solutions can work - but not necessarily in the long term. Brussels has the added problem of an estimated 50 000 terrorists who have infiltrated among the millions seeking refuge across the Mediterranean.

With global migration on the increase, the problem is not easily going to disappear. While there is no foreseeable solution in sight for Europe, Israel will hopefully fare better at containing the problem.

Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of NewshoundMedia and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the South African Absa Jewish Achievers.




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