The United States and many European countries are struggling with the issue of immigration. Millions of people have fled areas of conflict, as well as poor countries, either in search of asylum or economic opportunities. Israel has confronted similar problems; however, a major difference is that it is a much smaller country with less capacity to absorb thousands of penniless refugees who entered the country illegally.
An estimated 40,000 illegal African migrants are currently in Israel, and the issues surrounding how to treat them, and whether or not they should be deported, are a matter of debate. 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 live in poor neighborhoods in Tel Aviv and Eilat and have become crime infested.
The Gallup Migrant Acceptance Index ranked Israel as one of the least accepting countries for migrants in it's 2017 report. Israel scored a 1.87 out of nine possible points, making it one of the eight least accepting countries to migrants in the world.
Migrants from the Arab world and African countries are fleeing in increasing numbers, and many countries, especially in Europe, are confronting questions about retaining their national identity, the limits to humanitarianism, and the potential threat of radical Islamist infiltrators. Illegal immigration to Israel also raises security, humanitarian and economic concerns as well as the demographic impact on the preservation of a Jewish majority.
The largescale influx began in 2005 when thousands of refugees fleeing genocide in Darfur, war in southern Sudan, and deprivations in Eritrea began to sneak across the border in the Sinai Peninsula. Israel subsequently upgraded its border security, including a wall in 2017, while other routes for refugees to reach Europe became available, ending the migration.
The Israeli government considers most of them economic refugees who are seeking jobs; otherwise, they might have stayed in Egypt rather than cross the border. “The state of Israel is too small and has its own problems,” according to Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. “It cannot be used as the employment office of the African continent.”
Most of the Africans claim they seek asylum under the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and insist that Israel cannot deport them because of the turmoil in Eritrea and Sudan, where most fled. Indeed, Israel has an obligation to protect people who flee “genocide, war, persecution, and slavery to dictatorial regimes.” Most Africans in Israel, however, do not meet these criteria. Israel does consider the Sudanese from Darfur a special case and have granted temporary resident status to 500 Darfur refugees and is processing others.
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 this was unconstitutional “because it disproportionately limits the constitutional right to liberty in Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.”
In December 2013, the Knesset amended the infiltration prevention law, 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 returned voluntarily to their homes. The numbers leaving dramatically increased according to Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar because 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.”
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 more than two 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. The detained asylum seekers were to be given temporary residence permits and released in mid-November 2014.
After years of essentially looking the other way, the government decided in 2018 it was time to act. “Last year, we deported approximately 4,000 and the major effort is to deport most of those who remain, who have infiltrated and are present in Israel illegally,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In February 2018, the Population and Immigration Authority sent letters to Eritrean and Sudanese nationals offering them $3,500 and a one-way plane ticket if they leave voluntarily within 60 days. The government is not planning to send the deportees to countries they fled or where they may be in danger. Reportedly, Israel reached a deal with at least one African country, believed to be Rwanda or Uganda, to accept the returning migrants. Furthermore, according to Dr. Emmanuel Navon, “Israel is only expelling illegal immigrants who are single, and it has made clear that it will not expel families.” He also noted that other countries routinely expel illegal immigrants. In 2017, for example, Germany expelled 80,000. Unlike Germany, Israel is a small country that does not have the same capacity to absorb large numbers of refugees.
In a statement to the cabinet, Netanyahu explained:
In March 2018, the High Court of Justice issued an emergency injunction instructing the state to suspend its April 1 plan to start deporting single adult male migrants to third-party countries in Africa.
A group of rabbis subsequently established an organization to provide sanctuary to Africans threatened with expulsion. Many Israelis agreed to join the rabbis in hiding Africans in their homes. According to surveys, however, most Israelis think the migrants should be sent to a third country. A January 2014 Israel Hayom poll asking Jewish Israelis about the “best way to deal with the recent phenomenon of illegal immigration from Africa” found that 61% believed they should be sent to a third country. That figure increased to 66% in January 2018 according to an Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University Peace Index poll.
The Israeli public is deeply torn on the issue of the African migrants. Pre-State Israel was a haven for tens of thousands of immigrants from countries hostile to Jews; consequently, Israelis are very sensitive to refugees fleeing persecution. Many Israelis feel that it is morally wrong to deny asylum to Africans. Officials fear, however, that a flood of newcomers into the country will create major problems in the workforce, education system and healthcare infrastructure. If a precedent is set that these African migrants are allowed to gain 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.”
In December 2013, thousands protested in Tel Aviv against the detention of asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea. In 2014, thousands of Africans protested in front of the Knesset for days with signs saying “we are refugees; we need protection” and “we are not criminals, we are refugees.” In response, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said:
Israel has historically shown a commitment to protecting people fleeing persecution. It was Israel, for example, which accepted Vietnamese boat people at a time when most other countries denied them refuge. Israel is also not acting against the Africans because they are black. Israel has proved through its rescue and absorption of Ethiopian Jews and other people of color that its immigration policy is color blind. Moreover, the Africans are not the only illegal immigrants who are deported; people from Europe, for example, are also sent back to their homes.
Still, the decision to deport the illegals is controversial. Given Jewish history, particularly the refusal of most countries to open their doors to Jews fleeing the Nazis, some Israelis believe the government should provide a haven for the Africans. Israel is acting in accordance with the law, but some argue the government has a moral obligation to show leniency and allow them to stay.
Israel announced on April 2, 2018, that it reached an agreement with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees to deport 16,250 people with the assistance of Western countries while allowing another 16,000 to stay if they meet certain criteria to be determined by Israel and the commission.
“The plan is divided into three stages and is spread over five years, at the end of which the reality of life in south Tel Aviv and the neighborhoods will significantly improve,” a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office read. “The agreement was approved by the Attorney General and is consistent with international law and accepted practice.”
The government agreed to create a special unit to help rehabilitate the neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv most affected by the influx of African migrants, to more evenly distribute the asylum seeker population across Israel and to assist those staying with job placement and training.
On April 3, 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled the agreement made with the United Nations. “In the past 24 hours, I have held many consultations with Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, with professionals and representatives of residents of southern Tel Aviv,” Netanyahu said. “I listened attentively to criticism of the agreement. As a result, and after evaluating a new balance of advantages and disadvantages, I decided to cancel the agreement.”
He also said: “Despite the growing legal and international difficulties, we will continue to act with determination to exhaust all the possibilities available to us to remove the infiltrators. At the same time, we will continue to seek additional solutions.”
Netanyahu reversed course following pressure from members of his Likud party and others in his government coalition. Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, for example, said the agreement would “turn Israel into a paradise for infiltrators.”
It was announced on April 24, 2018 that the Israeli government would be making no further deportation decisions after failing to cement an immigration deal with a third country to send the African migrants to. The Israeli government issued a statement, clarifying that since
there is no possibility of implementing involuntary deportations to a third country... [the state] has ceased to hold hearings as part of the deportation policy, and no more deportation decisions will be made at this time. Existing deportation orders were cancelled, and visas were granted to migrants with expired residency permits.
Sources: Israel Law Resource Center;
Israel Democracy Institute;
Israel's Supreme Court;
Knesset passes migrant detention amendment, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, (December 10, 2013);
Illegal Immigration From Africa to Israel, Wikipedia;
Illegal Immigration to Israel: It's the Economy, Stupid! Jerusalem Post (January 7, 2014);
10,000 African migrants stage demonstration in Jerusalem, Times of Israel (January 8, 2014);
Since start of year, 4,000 African migrants leave Israel voluntarily, Israel Hayom, (March 27, 2014);
Israel to release 138 detained asylum seekers, Times of Israel (November 6, 2014);
Lahav Harkov, “Two-thirds of Israelis favor deporting African migrants, poll finds,” Jerusalem Post, (February 7, 2018);
Emanuel Navon, Israel is not Deporting Refugees, Times of Israel, February 1, 2018);
Emma Green, African Deportations Are Creating a Religious Controversy in Israel, The Atlantic, January 30, 2018);
Emanuel Navon, Israel is not Deporting Refugees, Times of Israel, February 1, 2018);
PM Netanyahu's Remarks at the Start of the Cabinet Meeting, Prime Minister's Office, January 28, 2018);
Should they go or should they stay? Jerusalem Report, (March 5, 2018);
“Israel Reaches Deal With UN To Resettle Asylum Seekers In Western States,” Jerusalem Post, (April 2, 2018);
“Netanyahu officially cancels African migrants deal,” JTA, (April 3, 2018);
Israel scraps deportations of all African asylum seekers, extends visas, Times of Israel, (April 24, 2018).