Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu takes off for Kenya on a trip last year. (photo by Haim Zach/GPO via Ashernet)
Recent years have seen a mass migration of people from Africa and the Middle East, primarily to Europe. Images of rickety boats filled with migrants and bodies washing up on European shores jolted the world’s conscience.
To be more accurate, these images jolted some people’s consciences. Others, like far-right political parties in Europe, have been more concerned with preventing migrants from entering their countries than they have been with the dangers the migrants face at home or in transit.
Israel’s experience has been somewhat different. Beginning even before the peak of the migration, thousands of east African migrants traveled to Israel, crossing the Sinai border with Egypt and entering Israel illegally. In some cases, migrants, many of them asylum-seekers, paid Bedouins to transport them across the border into Israel. The once-porous border has been secured and Israel’s attention has now turned to how to deal with those who entered the country illegally.
Some have been held in a facility called Holot, in the Negev, which the government describes as an “open-stay centre.” It is run by the prison authority and, while “residents” are free to leave during the day, they cannot work and if they miss an evening curfew they can be jailed.
There are an estimated 27,500 Eritreans and 7,800 Sudanese in Israel. The Israeli government department responsible says that 1,420 of these people are being held in detention facilities.
Migrants say they came to Israel to escape conflict or persecution, but the Israeli government characterizes them as economic migrants and refers to them as “infiltrators.” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has also suggested that African migrants threaten the Jewish nature of the country.
Thousands of migrants have already voluntarily left Israel, apparently not seeing a future there, despite arriving filled with the promise that life there might be free and prosperous.
Now, Netanyahu has announced a crackdown that puts the fate of the remaining tens of thousands in doubt. The government had already announced plans to deport migrants, a plan that Israel’s high court approved last summer, on the condition that safeguards were in place in third countries that would accept the expelled people. Rwanda has accepted several thousand African people from Israel.
Some who have returned to their home countries have been tortured or placed in solitary confinement. And reports say that others who have left continue their journeys through successive countries, many of them with an eye to eventually making it to Europe. Libya has been the departure point for many Africans setting off for Europe. For around 2,000, it has also been the last sign of land before drowning. In Libya, also, migrants are being sold in contemporary slave markets. Others are sexually assaulted or coerced into forced labour.
Irrespective of all of this, Netanyahu announced last week that the remaining migrants would be given the equivalent of about $3,500 US and sent packing. Those who do not leave will be imprisoned, the prime minister promises.
The choice is not necessarily obvious for everyone. One migrant told the New York Times recently: “If it’s between going back to Africa or to jail in Israel, I’ll go to jail.”
The government’s plan is inhumane.
We have plenty of sympathy for the need to maintain Israel’s Jewish character, but the assessment that 40,000 Africans present a serious threat to that demographic necessity – even generations down the line – is not credible.
A country that absorbed one million migrants from Russia in the course of a few years (albeit imperfectly) and whose entire history has been one of absorbing migrants, can do better than this for 40,000 Africans.
It is also startling to see the Jewish state behaving in such a callous way to migrants. Eve if some – or all – of these migrants were “economic” migrants rather than fleeing persecution and conflict, this would still not be an acceptable strategy. Jewish history should imbue Israel with more sensitivity to the humanity of migrants of any colour or origin. Even if the sensitivity to the migrants’ humanity were not genuine, Israel should at least be sensitive to the appearance created by their inhumanity toward the migrants.
In this space, we have always maintained that Israel has the right to determine its policies and directions first based on their self-determined needs, not on whether it makes it easier or more difficult for overseas Zionists to make our case. But does the Netanyahu government absolutely need to behave in ways so blatantly and unnecessarily nasty?