Israel and immigration

Israeli government to refugees: Go back to Africa or go to prison
By William Booth
Washington Post, 2015-05-15

HOLOT, Israel — As Europe struggles to stem a spring flood of migrants from Africa and the Middle East trying to cross a deadly Mediterranean Sea, Israel has begun to toughen its stance toward refugees, telling unwanted Africans here they must leave now or face an indefinite stay in prison.

Israeli authorities are sending letters to the first of 45,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees, informing them they have 30 days to accept Israel’s offer of $3,500 in cash and a one-way ticket home or to an unnamed third country in Africa, or face incarceration at Saharonim prison.

Israeli leaders have proclaimed that their tough approach — building a fence along the country’s border, denying work permits for illegal migrants, forcing them into a detention center in the desert — may ultimately save lives by dissuading migrants from attempting a perilous journey. Critics of the Israeli policy counter that a country built by refugees should be more accepting of those fleeing war, poverty and oppression.

But these days, even liberal Europe is considering a more muscular approach. The European Union began a push Monday for U.N. authorization to deploy military force in the Mediterranean to stop migrant smuggling ships.


Israel is a nation built by Jewish refugees, and those with Jewish ancestry are encouraged, even courted, to move here and provided wide-ranging assistance. A million Russian speakers came in the 1990s, and Jews from Ethi­o­pia continue to arrive each month.

But fearful that a wave of impoverished Africans, mostly Muslims from Sudan and Christians from Eritrea, would overwhelm the Jewish nature of the state, Israel spent more than $350 million to build a 140-mile fence along its entire border with Egypt. Undocumented migrants to Israel are called “infiltrators” by the Israeli government.

The steel barrier, completed in 2013, stopped illegal entry cold: More than 10,000 Africans arrived in 2012; today almost no one attempts the trip.


Yonatan Jakubowicz of the Israeli Immigration Policy Center, a think tank aimed at promoting “a coherent immigration policy for Israel,” pointed out that many countries simply jail illegal migrants or deport them immediately, which Israel did not do to the Africans.


More than 300,000 Eritreans have been offered asylum around the world; more than 84 percent are recognized as refugees or offered complimentary protection in other host countries, according to the United Nations. In Israel, the recognition rate is less than 1 percent for the past six years. Only four Eritreans and no Sudanese have been accepted for asylum, Rozen said.
Rozen said the Sudanese, who fled genocide and war, “are now waiting in line to go back,” having concluded there is no future for them in Israel.

Eritreans are more fearful. They fled a dictatorship that conscripts men and women into years of military service that human rights groups compare to virtual slavery. If the Eritreans return, the advocates say, they are jailed and tortured.


In letters to Eritrean refugees at the Holot detention center, the Israeli government promises that “money will be given to you at the airport in a secure manner. When you arrive at the third country, people will receive you at the airport and give you information about life in the country and other important information.”

Eritrean activists in Israel say they are not welcomed at all, but find their documents seized upon arrival, are shaken down for bribes and are generally shunned.

Israel is reportedly in negotiations for African nations to accept more refugees and for the creation of a more transparent process — instead of the secretive one pursued today, in which Israeli officials decline to discuss the voluntary returns with the media and do not tell the refugees where they are going until they are handed a plane ticket on the day of departure.

The model of paying a third country to accept unwanted refugees is a new idea. Israeli media have speculated that Israel could offer technology, favorable contracts, arms or other assistance, including cash, to countries that would accept the Africans and give them temporary visas.


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