Tuesday 29 May 2012

The African Migrant Problem Needs to be Solved Quickly

Israel has become inundated with African migrants, and this has raised some very difficult questions for the government about how to deal with them.  The problem started out as a humanitarian one.  Individuals and groups of people began turning up along Israel's southern border with Egypt.  They were filled with horrifying stories about the countries that they had run away from, and the murder and destruction that was taking place there as part of the series of ongoing civil wars that are plaguing the African continent.  The experiences that these individuals were forced to endure along their route to Israel was equally as horrendous.  Marauding groups of thugs in the deserts and soldiers from national armies, most notably the Egyptian army, stripped these poor people of the few belongings that they had, and raped and murdered many of those with them.

The Israeli authorities remembered too well the experiences that Jews were forced to endure during the Holocaust, when few nations were prepared to accept Jewish refugees who had nowhere to go to escape the evil Nazi extermination camps.  The African migrants were admitted across the border, given food shelter and basic medical treatment.  They were also allowed to seek out employment despite their exact status being unsure.  Children were sent to local schools, and policies regarding how to deal with this new phenomenon were being established on the fly.  It is astonishing how quickly the desert telephone works.  Word soon got back to Sudan and to Eritrea that the pot at the end of the rainbow is buried somewhere between Eilat and Tel Aviv.  Within no time at all, thousands of migrants were clambering across the border in search of the pot of gold.  Although they were running from horrendous situations in their home countries, these people could be classified more as economic migrants than as asylum seekers.

Fast-forward a few years to the current time, and the situation is extremely complicated.  In some areas like Southern Sudan, the civil war is over, a new country has been established and Israel was one of the first to move to recognise the new country.  Despite this fact, the citizens of Southern Sudan seem to have no intention of leaving Israel and returning to their newly-established homeland.  Instead, more and more seem to be arriving at the borders.  They have established communities of their own in towns and cities around Israel.  They are working in hotels, running coffee shops, Internet cafes, bars, restaurants and market stalls and their children are attending Israeli schools.  Their presence is becoming increasingly permanent in spite of the fact that the government has still yet to determine their legal status.  Suddenly, the African migrant community numbers 60,000 people and is beginning to make its presence felt in Israeli society in every possible way.

An undercurrent of dissatisfaction has been building below the surface about the newest of Israel's immigrant communities.  Economic times are tough, and there is a feeling amongst the weaker members of Israeli society that the African migrant community is receiving resources that should be channelled towards Israeli citizens instead.  Many charities have decided to route their efforts to help African migrants, often at the expense of Israeli citizens.  Cheap housing units are occupied by African migrants and often lead to price rises, making it difficult for others around.  There are accusations that school places that should be available to Israeli children, are being occupied by African children.  The character of some of Tel Aviv's oldest neighbourhoods is reported to have changed dramatically to reflect the increasing number of Africans living there.

The situation came to a head in the past few weeks with a number of incidents of violence having been blamed on African migrants.  A few rape accusations have been made against Africans, while reports have surfaced from areas where they live accusing them of burglary and other violent crimes.  While none of these accusations have yet been proven, it has allowed the undercurrent of dissatisfaction amongst some Israelis to boil over into full-blown rage.  Protests have taken place across Israel to demonstrate against the continued presence of African migrants, and the government is now being forced to take a stand.  Unfortunately, the protests have turned violent showing a really ugly side to Israeli society.  African migrants and their businesses and homes have been attacked as part of these protests, some of which were also attended by members of Knesset and other politicians.

In the first instance, the violence against others living in Israel should not be tolerated.  It is right that the police have arrested some of the perpetrators of this violence, and that they should be prosecuted under the law.  In the second place, it is right that the government should be held to account for the lack of policy on the migrants.  While the migrants had no alternative safe haven, it was acceptable and desirable for Israel to give them shelter.  Now, however, they have place to return to, and Israel should insist that they do so.  No visitor to Israel should be allowed to outstay their welcome, particularly if they will be utilising scarce resources that should be made available to the weakest in Israeli society.  The fact that the economic and social conditions in Southern Sudan or Eritrea are not quite up to the same level in the State of Israel is not the consideration.  If they are able to return in a manner that does not risk their personal safety, this should be enough to justify their repatriation.

Over the years, Israel has been forced to deal with a number of migrant communities.  There are thousands of Filipinos working to look after the elderly and the weak who require close care.  There are also thousands of Chinese workings employed in agriculture and construction.  Once these people have lived and worked here for a few years, and even had families here, the decision to deport them becomes much more difficult.

I feel really proud that Israel was willing and able to open its doors to people in desperate need, and in immense physical danger.  This reflects our empathy as a nation for the homeless and the weak in the world.  Now that the job has been done and the charity administered, the migrants should return home to allow Israel to put her own house in order.  After all, we wish to be there again should the need arise in the future.  By sending the migrants to their places of origin, it will mean that Israelis will be able and willing to help again if required.  By allowing them to remain indefinitely, it puts this help at grave risk, and risks a great deal in our own society.


Michael Garber said...

Dear Anthony , perhaps the entitlement of these migrants to remain in Israel ought to depend on the following factors : (1) How long they have been in the country , since this will affect their ability to integrate into Israeli Society ; (2) whether they have any useful skills ;
(3) Whether they have had children who were born in Israel , are attending school , speak Hebrew , and identify themselves as Israelis. Does Israel , which was established on the basis of an immigrant society not have any laws that determine when , how and whether a person becomes naturalised , other than the Law of Return , which accords any Jew the automatic right of residence in Israel AND tax exemptions for a period of time ? Regards , Michael Garber

Anthony Reich said...

Thanks for the comment Michael. Many of the factors that you mention are ones that were taken into account by the Israeli government when deciding whether to allow other foreign workers from the Philippines and elsewhere in Africa to remain. Even though they had been in Israel illegally for many years, they had children who only spoke Hebrew and knew no other home. Many of these people were allowed to remain legally.

There is a naturalisation process other than the Law of Return. This assumes, however, that people are in Israel legally to begin with. Just like in other countries, people who are here illegally cannot be naturalised through the usual process.

In the case of these migrants, the main problem is that the goverment has not decided what their status is. Some have applied for asylum, but these applications were not activated, and the migrants found themselves without any legal status.

If Israel decides to give many of these migrants a home here, it may be seen as a "soft touch" by others who are also looking for a better economic environment for their families. Israel is not in a position to be able to accommodate many of these people.