No Quarter: Israel’s crack down on illegal immigration
Israel’s crack down targeting irregular African migrants has had some dramatic outcomes in resent months. Following the forced return of hundreds of South Sudanese undocumented migrants, the detaining of thousands of others and passing of new anti-migrant legislation, there has been a sudden decline of irregular migrants crossing the Egyptian/Israeli border. To some observers inside and outside Israel recent events are an alarming and draconian reaction to the issue of migrants.
The events needs be set in context. In previous decades Palestinians filled numerous menial and non-skilled jobs (informal and formal sector) that increasingly affluent Israelis avoided. The end of the second intifada (a period of Palestinian-Israeli violence from 2000-2005) created space, and demand, for alternative foreign workers, mostly from Africa, who then replaced Palestinians.
Many of these new African migrant workers overstayed their work permits and chose to settle in Israel. The government more or less tolerated them and in the absence of a strict migration policy - they turned a blind eye. A second more recent group consists of migrants/asylum seekers that enter Israel irregularly through the border with Egypt, aided mostly by Bedouin smugglers from the Sinai. In the past Israel did not return these migrants to Egypt because the Egyptians refuse to give an undertaking not to deport the immigrants to their countries of origin. Instead, the Israeli authorities granted them a temporary residence permit which needed renewal every three months. According to the Israeli Interior Ministry,these newer illegal immigrants amounted to 26,635 in July 2010 and over 55,000 in January 2012. Between 80–90 per cent of the undocumented workers are estimated to live primarily in two centers:Tel Aviv (more than 60 %) and Eilat (more than 20%), with limited additional groups in Ashdod, Jerusalem and Arad. Many of the undocumented workers (predominantly Sudanese and Eritrean) have claimed asylum but few are eligible to become, or recognized as, refugees.
Increasingly concerned with their presence and number, the Israeli government has argued that immigration is an issue of national importance linked to security and criminality that also poses both a demographic and humanitarian challenge. They claim that proportionally Israel has accepted more migrants than countries of Europe and something was needed to stem the tide into their geographically limited territory.
Early in January 2012, Israel replaced the 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Law with the Infiltration Protection Bill to define all irregular border-crossers as ’infiltrators’. The law which was originally passed in 1954 was part of Israel’s emergency regulations to deal with the phenomenon of armed Palestinian infiltrators who reportedly entered Israel to conduct sabotage operations. Under the new legislation, Israeli authorities have permission to detain all irregular border-crossers including asylum seekers and their children. The law further allows officials to detain migrants for three years without trial or indefinitely (if they come from an ‘enemy state’ such as N. Sudan) and does not distinguish between refugees, unauthorized immigrants or infiltrators with intention to harm Israel’s security. The new law also stipulates that anyone helping migrants or providing them with shelter could face prison sentences of between five and 15 years.
In late 2010 Israel began work on the 240 km border fence that now divides the desert at the joint border. At the time, the Prime Minister justified the barrier which is enhanced with electronic and other monitoring devices, so no one,“ could literary walk from Africa to Israel.”
Statistics from Israel’s population and immigration authority indicate that 90% of the people who cross the border between Egypt and Israel illegally are from Sudan and Eritrea. In mid-June a group of 123 South Sudanese migrants was the first group to be deported to Juba, and hundreds others followed. Hundreds more have reportedly been detained pending deportation. Statements made by the government indicate that apart from the hundreds of South Sudanese deported in June and July they intend to overcome legal obstacles that prevent them from deporting Eritreans and North Sudanese (now Sudanese) in the future.
Additionally, the Justice Ministry has also proposed an amendment to a bill that will prohibit Africans from sending money abroad to their families. The Ministry said "Reducing the economic incentive is an effective tool to deal with the phenomenon of infiltration." International organisations have been quick to remind Israel of its international obligation as a signatory of the UN convention on refugees, especially its commitment towards non-refoulment of refugees. According to Human Rights Watch, punishing asylum seekers for unlawful entry is a violation of international refugee law. “The law states that the detention of irregular border-crossers falls under an administrative procedure that does not guarantee them access to a lawyer to challenge their detention.” Subjecting irregular border-crossers to potential indefinite detention without charge or access to legal representation would violate the prohibition against arbitrary detention under international human rights law.
In what some have cautioned as statements with racist overtones, the Interior Minister of Israel, Eli Yishai, in early June said that "The infiltrators along with the Palestinians will quickly bring us to the end of the Zionist dream,” adding that Israel had its own health and welfare issues. ”We don't need to import more problems from Africa."
Some sections of Israeli society have become violent towards African migrants. Unidentified assailants have committed assaults crimes mostly against sub-Saharan Africans, including firebombs thrown into residences, an arson attack against a preschool, the smashing of car windows, and the beating of a hotel employee. On May 23, 2012 a demonstration was held in the Hatikva Quarter, in which more than a thousand Israeli protesters demonstrated against the government’s percieved tollerant handling the immigrant influx. The protest turned violent as the participants began attacking passersby, shattered store windows belonging to owners of African descent, burned garbage cans and clashed with police. On June 4, Ynetnews, an online press in Jerusalem reported that unknown assailants had set fire to an apartment in Jerusalem where seven Eritrean and Ethiopian migrants were living. Investigators also found the words ‘Get out of the neighborhood’ sprayed on one of the walls.
In August 2012, the Israeli Defense Force was confronted with 21 Eritrean migrants at their border with Egypt who claimed asylum in Israel. The migrants persisted for 8 days pleading with the soldiers to let them through while camping in the desert close to the fence. The Israeli government eventually granted entry to two women and a 14 year old boy who were promptly transferred to the Saharonim detention facility. The 18 remaining were allegedly pushed back forcibly with tear gas and iron bars. Israel argued that the erected barrier serves as the border fence and since none of the migrants had crossed the border, none of the conventions apply arguing that a nation is not prohibited from “returning” a refugee who has never truly “arrived.”
Various human rights agencies including Amnesty international and Human Rights Watch have condemned Israel’s actions and called on a reversal of its policies arguing that Israel is reneging on its obligations to the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees by detaining innocent refugees or deporting them to countries where their lives will be at risk and also intimidating those who aid asylum seekers. The agencies have argued that the refugees and migrants in Israel are victims of war, genocide and totalitarian regimes which are oppressive to their citizens and therefore should be accorded protection and assistance based on the various UN conventions.
Presumably the authorities view their new stance toward African migrants as a success: the number of migrants who entered Israel in August 2012 was just 191, and in July only 268, compared to the average of 1,000 per month in the months preceding the clamp down.