Mebrit, an asylum seeker who works with Kucinate - African Refugee Women's Collective, in Tel Aviv on February 14, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
The 37,288 African migrants – mostly from Eritrea and Sudan – who made their way into the country illegally from 2006-2014 pose a significant challenge to Israel. The government’s current plan, to deport many of these individuals, is drawing national and even international attention.
Humanitarian activists, American Jewish groups and the migrants themselves are protesting the deportation plans, labeling the entire group as refugees, and claiming that rejecting refugees is a betrayal of Jewish values and Jewish history – and are particularly invoking the Holocaust. Some even call the government racist, accusing it of allowing “white” illegal migrants to remain.
Yet the Israeli government and two-thirds of Israelis are in favor of the current plan. They claim the majority are “infiltrators” (mistanenim) seeking jobs, and are not really refugees. They note that crime has skyrocketed and life has become untenable for South Tel Aviv’s already impoverished residents, where the majority of Africans reside.
The reality is far more complex. The solution too should be a complex one that includes a menu of nuanced policy options – striking a careful balance between Jewish values and history – on the one hand, and Israel’s small size, location and unique character on the other.
Clearing the Confusion
As misinformation is rampant, it is worthwhile to clarify a few facts. We use the neutral term “migrants” rather than refugees or infiltrators.
Until 2018, there were 15,205 migrants who applied for asylum. Of the 6,514 requests examined thus far, 12 individuals received refugee status and protection, and another 500 or so from Darfur and orphaned children received humanitarian visas.
As of February 2018, the government announced it would not renew temporary visas for those who did not request asylum and would deport 20,000 single men to cooperating third countries (reportedly Rwanda and Uganda), and give them each US$3,500. Those who refuse risk detention.
There are three points to note here:
First, much of the confusion stems from the following: a “migrant” is considered an “asylum seeker” if they submit an “asylum request,” and a “refugee” if that request is recognized. Thus, technically, many of those in Israel are not even asylum seekers as they never submitted a request. Conversely, there are significant claims that Israel’s review of the asylum requests is unfairly strict (as compared to other countries), and so many migrants did not even bother in the first place. Therefore, the state is technically right when it says the majority are “not really refugees,” while critics have a valid point in that Israel seems to not be fairly reviewing requests.
Second, at this time, women, children, fathers of families and those awaiting an asylum decision are not included in the deportation plan;
And finally, Israel’s High Court, which cannot be accused of being right-wing, ruled that the third-country deportation plan was permissible as no threat was posed to the individuals’ safety.
On a side note, the 74,000 “white” illegal migrants (mostly from the Ukraine and FSU) are treated separately as they entered Israel legally and are regularly deported without much fanfare.
Striking a Careful Balance – Jewish State. Vs. Jewish Values
Sovereign states cannot accept unlimited numbers of migrants and refugees. Reasonable policy must balance a country’s values with its interests. EU countries who absorbed tens of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers in recent years are feeling the effects today.
To be sure, Israel is a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relation to the Status of Refugees and committed to sheltering and assisting those recognized as refugees.
Israel further strives to act according to Jewish humanitarian values. Even if most of these migrants are not technically refugees, they clearly come from tough circumstances. However, Israel is a small country with limited capacity. Moreover, it was founded with a raison d’etre, to be the nation-state of the Jewish people – as a homeland and a refuge. As such, Israel absorbed millions of Jewish migrants in its short history, many of them refugees.
Down the road, as the African continent undergoes a population surge (expected to quadruple to 4 billion over the next 100 years), remains rife with instability, and struggles with the challenges of climate change and desertification, the flow of migrants and asylum seekers northward is only expected to grow. Israel would have to expect many more migrants trying to enter its borders than it could ever handle
Toward a balanced solution
At the Jewish People Policy Institute, we examined a variety of options, including what other countries have done. Between the current options of absorbing or deporting over 40,000 individuals (4,000 children were born to these migrants in Israel), much can be done that balances Jewish values, and Israel’s very real limitations. For a full analysis see here.
First, Israel should sincerely examine and improve its current Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process, the subject of much criticism; and seek to conduct it more humanely, efficiently, professionally and transparently. This may entail a temporary freeze to allow those who did not submit requests to do so. Critics will need to accept that some, perhaps most, will not be recognized as refugees and be required to leave. Deportation supporters will need to recognize that, hundreds and perhaps thousands of these migrants will receive refugee status and remain. Regardless, children raised and educated in Israel should be allowed to remain.
As Diaspora Jewry has shown great concern over the fate of African migrants in Israel, we recommend launching a global Jewish effort — a partnership between Diaspora Jewish organizations, philanthropists, and the Israeli government – and establishing a world Jewry migrant assistance fund (the “fund”) to pay for these efforts. This can also help unite Israel and Diaspora Jews at a time when that relationship is strained. In our assessment, these steps will not cost more and may cost even less than the current Government of Israel’s deportation and detention plan.
We further propose three recommendations that can help facilitate the positive resettlement of the majority of these.
Canadian sponsorship and resettlement – Canada’s refugee policy allows for private groups to sponsor recognized refugees, so long as they can support them for 1 year as they integrate into society. Canadian Jewish groups already sponsor refugees, and in the past, have taken in 1,000 Eritreans from Israel. The “fund” can help support Canadian Jewish communities to absorb more.
Vocational training and resettlement – Of those not recognized as refugees, Israel should seek motivated individuals for training in basic vocations – electricity, carpentry, cooking, farming, construction and more. Israel and the “fund” would help coordinate with the UNHCR to find countries seeking such skilled workers. This would be akin to “teaching them to fish” and not just “giving them a fish”.
Agricultural training outside of Israel and resettlement as independent farmers – motivated individuals would travel to a cooperating third country, and receive agricultural training, and room and board. Graduates would receive assistance in purchasing a plot of land and a farming “starter kit” in that country. The foreign ministry’s MASHAV unit has significant experience in this regard and would coordinate and run this program – with help from the “fund”. This too, would amount to “teaching the migrants to fish”.
Due to its very real limitations and given that this challenge will only increase in the future, Israel cannot realistically accept anyone who is not a refugee. Nor does it have the responsibility to do so. Absorbing all the migrants and large numbers of asylum seekers is short sighted and will create bigger problems in the future. However, that does not mean Israel should simply sit by and do nothing. The solutions offered here present a real, innovative, and sustainable way in the long-term for Israel to truly help these individuals – balancing Jewish values of helping those in need, while ensuring Israel’s viability as a thriving Jewish state for generations to come.
Dan Feferman is a Fellow and Dr. Dov Maimon is a Senior Fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute.