Israel Studies Plan to Detain Illegal Migrants
rue> JOEL MILLMAN And
=true> JOSHUA MITNICK
* NOVEMBER 15, 2011
TEL AVIV-Israel is considering controversial new legislation to rebuff a
surging tide of African asylum-seekers through lengthy detention time,
highlighting an emotionally charged debate in a country established to
absorb Jewish refugees after World War II.
Facing issues that echo the U.S. immigration dilemma, the Israeli
parliament's Internal Affairs Committee on Monday began taking up Israel's
so-called Prevention of Infiltration Law. Originally promulgated in 1954 to
curb Palestinians seeking to return to their homes-and to counter
cross-border attacks by militants-it is a law that the government now wants
to modify to enable three-year detentions without trial for illegal migrants
entering from Africa via Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.
Migrant-rights advocates say that would be in violation of a 60-year-old
United Nations convention on refugee rights, adopted largely as a response
to the world's inaction to the Nazi Holocaust during World War II.
"Israel has an obligation because of its history," says Oded Feller, a
lawyer for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. "The refugee
convention says refugees can't be penalized because they came illegally."
To become law, the bill must pass in the Internal Affairs Committee and two
final readings in the parliamentary plenum.
The debate is a response to a trickle of African refugees that has turned
into a steady stream over more than five years. From an average of around
1,000 arrivals each month through 2010 and the first half of this year, the
number of Eritrean, Sudanese and Ethiopian "infiltrators"-Israel's official
term for illegal entrants-rose to 2,000 per month over the summer.
Some 1,300 Africans were captured along the border with Egypt between the
first and tenth of November, according to Israel's Population and
Israel's influx of illegals is still minuscule compared with the inflows to
Europe or the U.S. The Tel Aviv municipality estimates there are 35,000
migrant workers in the city, Israel's second-largest, who entered the
country legally. Officials estimate there are perhaps another 20,000 who
entered legally as guest workers and stayed on, working in the informal
economy, after their work permits expired.
Concerned about maintaining a Jewish majority, Israel has looked askance at
allowing "return" rights to Palestinians. There is a broad worry in Israel
that too many non-Jewish residents will erode the society's ethnic core.
As with the U.S. and Europe, several factors feed the migrant flow,
including the lawlessness of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, where Bedouin clans
that traditionally thrived from drug and arms trafficking have branched into
migrant smuggling. Also, Israel already imports farm labor from as far away
as Thailand and Nepal, and employs thousands of Africans as hotel workers
Growing dependence on foreign workers has exacerbated a growing income gap
here, which Israeli economists calculate is second only to the U.S.'s among
economies of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Analysts here say Israel's failure to strictly regulate the flow of
low-skilled labor drags salaries down.
"From a humanitarian point of view, we should accept a small number of
people who are really refugees-but not those who come to seek better jobs or
a better life,'' says Momi Dahan, a Hebrew University economist affiliated
with the liberal Israel Democracy Institute. "The fact is that Israel is a
very small country, with a relatively small population, we can't afford to
have so many people coming from Africa to Israel."
Across Israel, more than 40,000 Africans bear identity cards that designate
them as under "Conditional Release"-a form of house arrest that prohibits
the designee from working. The designation frees the government from housing
and feeding the illegal migrants while stopping short of granting them
refugee or asylum-seeker status.
Tesfamariam Tekeste, Eritrea's ambassador to Israel, considers the
"conditional" arrangement a travesty. The ban against working exposes
Eritrean laborers to exploitation by unscrupulous employers, while poverty
forces Africans to sleep in city parks or rent hovels from slumlords, he
All the same, the ambassador says his government would vigorously protest a
move by Israel to designate Eritreans as refugees. "These are economic
migrants, not political migrants," he says. "They are not persecuted in
Today, the emergence of African districts in cities including Eilat, Ashdod
and Tel Aviv is alarming to many. "Look at Tel Aviv," says Ya'akov Katz, of
the religious National Union party, who complains that the city is already
experiencing a variant of "white flight" from some districts. Within five
years, he warns, "Tel Aviv is going to be an African city."
Mr. Katz approves of the new legislation, which envisions more money to
complete a security fence along Israel's border with Sinai, and new funds to
complete a detention city where African "infiltrators" can be held for up to
three years without trial. Critics call it a "concentration camp."
Illegal immigrants deemed to be from "enemy" states, like Sudan, which has
no diplomatic relations with Israel, could be held indefinitely.
Liberal politicians-including Yael Dayan, chairman of Tel Aviv's city
council and the daughter of one of Israel's most renowned military
heroes-say establishing a detention city for Africans would be morally
wrong. It would also, she said, be a "budget buster."
Write to Joel Millman at <mailto:joel.millman_at_wsj.com> joel.millman_at_wsj.com
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Received on Tue Nov 15 2011 - 08:06:12 EST