Israel is struggling to deal with the challenge of significant numbers of African migrants illegally attempting to enter the country.
As many as 150,000 illegal economic migrants have come into the country via the long border with Egypt over the past few years. This includes about 35,000 Eritreans and 15,000 north Sudanese, who claim refugee status.
In each of the past two years, more than 10,000 migrants from Africa have entered Israel through the long border along the Sinai desert with Egypt. Only a minority qualifies as genuine refugees; the others are seeking a way out of Africa and gainful employment in the only Western democracy in the Middle East.
The people of Eritrea and Sudan live under authoritarian regimes with no rule of law and widespread poverty. Torture, detention and killings of political opposition and minorities occur in these countries. They are also the site of both civil and extra-territorial conflict. Sudan is home to the well-documented humanitarian tragedy in Darfur and the country’s President has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on genocide charges. Other African refugees also are fleeing varying degrees of repression, violence, and extreme poverty in their own countries.
Because of Israel’s history as a democracy founded largely by refugees and its reputation as a free and prosperous nation, the country is a favored destination both for genuine refugees and economic migrants, despite its lack of a common border with any of the African states in question. Israel is also the only “land bridge” (meaning that migrants can flee on foot) out of Africa and into the Western world.
The migrants generally arrive without documentation or any way of proving their claims of origin or refugee status. (They are often robbed, tortured, abused and extorted by the Egyptian Bedouin in the Sinai while making their way to Israel)
UNCHR guidelines do not allow countries to send these people back to Eritrea or the northern Sudan (where their lives would be in danger), so Israel has to allow them temporary refuge in the country. Consequently, they are given “conditional release visas,” which is a form of temporary protection, and allowed to work
The rate of infiltration had plummeted since Israel began this year to build a security fence along its almost 300km border with Egypt. (For example, 928 infiltrators crossed the Egyptian border in June of 2012 into Israel, compared to 2,013 in May). Israel is also seeking to dissuade additional illegal immigration by detaining and incarcerating infiltrators (and deporting small numbers of non-refugees back to Africa, where and when legally possible) instead of busing them into Israel’s major cities.
Israel’s population is just under 8 million, and the country is neither equipped nor willing to absorb the hundreds of thousands of African migrants who wish to migrate to Israel. The already-relatively-large influx of migrants to Israel has led to social tensions, especially in some areas of Tel Aviv and cities in Israel’s south where the migrants have concentrated. There have been isolated incidents of violence, perpetrated both by the migrants and by the local population against the newcomers. In response, the government of Israel condemned these acts of violence, with Prime Minister Netanyahu stating: “There is no room for the type of statements and acts we witnessed yesterday. …I say this to public officials as well as the residents of south Tel Aviv, whose pain I understand; we will solve the problem, and we will do so in a responsible manner.”