An estimated 60,000 illegal African migrants are currently in Israel, and the issues surrounding how to treat them and whether or not to deport them loom large in Israeli politics. Some of these Africans are being held in detention centers in Israeli border towns while others have been given temporary work permits, healthcare and access to education. A large portion of them, however, live in poor neighborhoods in Tel Aviv or Eilat, where native Israelis are scared to visit. Following a ruling by the Israeli High Court, on November 6 2014 it was announced that 138 African asylum seekers who had been detained for over 2 years were to be released the following week. This ruling was a response to a petition filed by the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants NGO, claiming that the detention of these asylum seekers for longer than one year was illegal in accordance with Israel's Prevention of Infiltration Law. These detained asylum seekers are to be given temporary residence permits and are to be released in mid-November 2014.
Israeli laws about refugees and asylum-seekers date back to 1954, when the The Prevention of Infiltration Law was passed, then intended to address Palestinian fedayeen - militiamen who infiltrated Israel and tried to attack Israeli targets. That law is the bedrock of Israeli policy on these issues and has been amended several times in recent years.
In January 2012, the Knesset passed an amendment defining non-residents of Israel who enter the country as "infiltrators," and allowing Israel to hold illegal migrants for up until three years without trial. Several months later, the nine judges of the Supreme Court unanimously agreed that "the arrangement [of the amendment] is unconstitutional because it disproportionaly limits the constitutional right to liberty in Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty."
In December 2013, the Knesset amended the infiltration prevention law again, allowing Israel to hold illegal migrants in detention centers for up to one year. During this time, the government must provide food, shelter, health care and social services but the migrants will not be allowed to work.
In January 2014, the government insisted that most of the "infiltrators" come to Israel for work and do not seek asylum. Through the first quarter of 2014, nearly 4,000 illegal African migrants left Israel voluntarily. In all of 2013, 2,612 migrants return voluntarily to their homes. "Infiltrators are leaving Israel five times more than in the past," said Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar. "The trend signaling a dramatic growth in the number of infiltrators leaving Israel is a result of our unambiguous policy, and the combined measures we have taken -- the new infiltrator law, the establishment of the open detention facility and increasing the monetary grant for leaving voluntarily."
The Israeli public is deeply torn on the issue of the African migrants. Pre-State Israel was a relative safe haven for tens of thousands of immigrants from countries hostile to Jews and Israelis are thus very sensitive to the issue of immigration. Many Israelis feel that it is morally wrong to deny access to Africans seeking shelter in Israel and other basic rights like the ability to find employment. On the other hand, officials think that a flood of newcomers into the country will continue to cause major problems in the workforce, education system and healthcare infrastructure. If a precedent is set that these African migrants are allowed to gain asylum or even citizenship, then thousands of other people living in strife may also attempt to cross into Israel. President Shimon Peres framed the dilemma in terms of Jewish values: "Hatred of foreigners contradicts the fundamental principles of Judaism."
There have been major protests in the last few years to protest Israeli government inaction on the issue, to fight for refugee rights and others to decry violence by the Africans. In December 2013, thousands protested in Tel Aviv against the detention of asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritra. These protestors spoke out against Israel's detention without trial of African refugees in the Saharonim and Holot facilities. In January 2014, a string of protests attracted thousands, some tens of thousands, of African migrants and native Israelis. In one case, 10,000 Africans protested in front of the Knesset building in Jerusalem for days with signs saying "we are refugees; we need protection" and "we are not criminals, we are refugees." Clearly those people do seek political status. Still, some commentators argue that the protests show that these people are not looking for asylum or refugee status, but simply the basic human right to find work. In response, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said:
"Protests [and] strikes will not help. We completely halted the infiltration into Israel and are now determined to remove the illegal infiltrators that entered Israel. Last year we increased sixfold the number of infiltrators that left, to more than 2,600 and the goal this year is to increase this figure even more."
Most of the nearly 60,000 undocumented workers from Africa in Israel claim they seek asylum under the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, but Israel cannot deport them because of the extreme turmoil in Eritrea and Sudan, where most come from. The UN High Commisioner for Refugees defines Eritrean immigrants as a "temporary humanitarian protection group," and Israel does not deport Sudanese people back to Egypt because it genuinely fears for their safety. Moreover, the Egyptians refuse to promise not to deport the migrants back to their countries of origin. As a result, Israeli authorities grant temporary residence permits - that need to be renewed every three months - to the undocumented workers, who are mostly in Tel Aviv and Eilat.
While there are not many public opinion polls of Israelis on the specific issue of African illegal immigration to Israel, some findings reveal that most Israelis think the migrants should be sent to a third country.
Here is a breakdown of a January 2014 Israel Hayom poll asking Jewish Israelis about the "best way to deal with the recent phenomenon of illegal immigration from Africa":
Send migrants to third country 61.3% Send migrants to open detention facility, penalize those who do not go 18.4% Migrants should be given opportunity to live & work in Israel 11.6%
Illegal immigration is an issue not exclusive to Israel by any means. It is particularly crucial and controversial in Israel because it affects major demographic questions such as how to maintain the Jewish majority. However, countries across the world, especially Europe, are facing huge numbers of illegal immigrants. All over the European continent, these new residents mean that individual countries suddenly have to question their very national identity, what exactly it means to be Italian, French, or British, for example. Migrants from the Arab world and African countries are fleeing in increasing numbers and the countries they immigrate to then have to contemplate what to do with them. This includes the immigration and refugee legislation on the books, on top of things like national unity and identity. Lots of questions arise: Who belongs here? Who are we? Who is not a member? The biggest and perhaps most immediate threat of huge swaths of new immigrants is its impact on the country's economy, certainly a big concern for Israel. Although in general, Israel is not alone in facing this problem and its government's struggle to find a way to cope with it is not unique.
Sources: Israel Law Resource Center, Israel Democracy Institute, Israel's Supreme Court, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Wikipedia, Jerusalem Post, Israel Hayom, Times of Israel; Israel Hayom (March 27, 2014); Times of Israel