ISRAEL: African immigrants caught between Israeli government and society

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Israeli officials frequently say Israel is the only First World economy that can be reached on foot from the Third World: You can walk from Africa straight to Tel Aviv. Tens of thousands have done just that -- and if the country doesn’t do something about it, many more will, officials warn.

The large pockets of foreign communities grow in different ways. Foreign workers, like Filipino nursing professionals, come in the front door but stay through the window, overstaying their work permits and settling down.


Most Africans do it the other way around. They climb in through the window of the long, sprawling and largely open border with Egypt and then knock on the door for asylum. About 15,000 African hopefuls have entered the country this year, roughly double the amount of last year.

The government is determined to stop the influx. For starters, it is fencing off its 150-mile border with Egypt. Work began last month.

The border fence will cost about $370 million, but government indecision on immigration matters is costing dearly. Fear of the impact on politics, religion, demography, diplomacy and the economy has paralyzed decision-makers, negating a cohesive immigration policy. Years of Band-Aid solutions have produced a situation that is rapidly approaching a crisis.

All non-Jewish foreigners challenge Israel’s aspirations for a Jewish majority and character while treating others fairly. But the African issue offers a test of humanitarianism and international law -- and social tolerance too.

Largely lumped together as ‘infiltrators,’ many of the Africans come from war-torn regions. Most come from Eritrea; Sudan is a close second, with a number from Ivory Coast and other countries. All asylum seekers undergo a process of ‘refugee status determination, ‘ or RSD, except for Sudanese and Eritreans, who enjoy a temporary sweeping protection. Last year, the RSD process passed from the U.N. to Israeli government authorities. Since then, bureaucratic treatment of asylum seekers has deteriorated, Saed ed-din Ibrahim, a Sudanese living in Israel, told Israel Radio in impeccable Hebrew.

Out of 4,000 asylum seekers interviewed this past year, only two met the criteria, said Yossi Edelstein, who heads the immigration administration’s enforcement branch. Israeli authorities say most are impostors, using borrowed identities to qualify as asylum seekers.This distracts authorities’ resources from ‘helping the people who really do need protection,’ Edelstein said.


In one case, a man’s request for protection was rejected by Interior Ministry officials, who did not believe he was a Borgo tribesman from Darfur. He wasn’t Sudanese, officials concluded, based in part on his poor knowledge of ‘elementary details about Sudan’ and his meager Arabic.

But a district judge overturned the decision, which he called biased and arbitrary. Small wonder that the man doesn’t know Khartoum landmarks, the judge said of the petitioner who never left his village 300 miles away until escaping it at 24. And the Borgo tribe speak their own tongue, not Arabic, the judge noted, granting the petitioner the residential and working rights to which Sudanese are entitled.

The government is moving to bar employers from giving asylum seekers work. Some municipalities forbid renting to them, threatening eviction. Some Israelis complain they take jobs and housing; others say they spread crime, even disease. ‘This isn’t racism, it’s survival,’ read banners in a demonstration held this week in southern Tel Aviv, where locals said they were now afraid to let their children out after dark. Politicians have entered the controversy, some jumping on the bandwagon with nationalist agendas.

Public atmosphere is approaching panic, breeding xenophobia and violence. A few African men barely escaped when their Ashdod apartment was torched recently. A group of teenage girls -- Israeli-born with African parents -- were beaten up on their way home from a Scouts activity.

‘Citizens must not take the law into their own hands,’ a stern Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cautioned Israelis via Youtube Wednesday, amid concerns the heated debate would spur more hotheads into action.

Netanyahu listed a number of steps the government was taking to stop the flow of illegal immigrants, including returning them to their home countries. Last week, Israel returned a planeload of Sudanese to their own country, via a third one that wasn’t named.


Non-governmental organizations have quietly coordinated smaller returns before. This time, reportedly, the government was involved in providing travel documents and money, though other bodies -- one believed to be the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem -- helped. Government spokespeople did not want to talk about the operation, which leaked to the media. Too sensitive, too dangerous, sources said.

Sudan’s future is unclear, with a key referendum in January. So is the future of the returnees, who some fear could be endangered if their children let their native Hebrew slip. William Tall, a U.N. refugee official in Israel, told media last week that the organization was ‘satisfied’ that the individuals had ‘made a voluntary choice’ to return and were not ‘coerced to go back.’

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Video: African refugees in Israel, via YouTube