Nearly 60,000 African migrants have entered Israel illegally since 2006, and the government is cracking down by refusing to process them as refugees or renew temporary visas. Thousands of the illegal immigrants demonstrated Sunday in Tel Aviv over the new policy.
The government now wants some migrants to move to the controversial Holot “open” detention center, located in Negev, 130 miles from the Tel Aviv slums where the majority of the Africans live. Holot and nearby Saharonim prison holds about 2,000 illegal immigrants who arrived after Israel built a fence along the Egyptian border and passed the 2012 “anti-infiltration law.”
“We are determined to expel everyone who got in here before we closed the border,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday.
Officials are telling those whose temporary visas are not renewed to move to Holot as well. But the African migrants said that rather than advancing in the asylum process at Holot, they are offered only incentives for self-deportation. Israel’s immigration authority advertises “voluntary return assistance” that provides travel documents, airline tickets, and $3,500 per adult and $1,000 per child for those migrants who agree to return home or go to another negotiated country, such as Uganda. Simple deportation of asylum-seekers is not an option due to international law, but Israel’s slow processing of African migrants pushes them to choose cash and tickets over languishing in Holot.
Many new arrivals are from war-torn Sudan and Eritrea. But Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Yigal Palmor, said being from a country with a horrendous human rights record does not automatically make someone a refugee. A person has to prove returning home puts them at risk of personal harm or persecution.
Israel opens wide its doors for Jews—a prime reason for its existence. But non-Jewish African migrants face a barred door. Netanyahu claimed their numbers threaten Israel’s cohesion and Jewish identity, according to The Guardian.
The Jewish homeland’s economy shines in a region atrophied by wars and Islamic governments. So defining who qualifies as a refugee is at issue: The U.N. considers refugees as those who move across an international border due to fear for their lives, and they are expected to apply for refugee status in that country. But the majority of Africans have crossed not just one but two or three borders to get to Israel. That suggests they came for economic deliverance, since they did not seek refugee status in the closest haven.
The difficulty of getting a student visa to Israel underscores the level of scrutiny the country is applying across the board. Bayamy Tchandé Awakdé, translation coordinator at the Chadian Bible Society, was due to study in Israel this month. Visa applications stalled as officials feared Africans entering on student visas might also try to overstay. “Foreign students in general were denied, not just Africans,” Bayamy told me. “Then the Hebrew University legal advocate spoke for us with the Interior Ministry.” Ten days later, the government granted his visa.
Israeli opinion on immigrants is as divided as Jerusalem. Some say the illegal immigrants should go to any number of Islamic and or African states. Others view enforcing their nation’s immigration and visa laws as unjust. Little pressure is placed back on the unjust African regimes whose leaders cause the flow of migrants—economic or not.