Israel, a state founded by refugees, should develop a more coherent and consistent policy to deal with those who claim to be fleeing violence and oppression.
To be sure, the issue is complicated by Israel’s unique nature, and the potential impact of a flood of African migrants in search of better opportunities on the country’s character as a Jewish state. The majority of the 60,000 African migrants who have crossed the border through Egypt are from Sudan, an overwhelmingly Muslim nation that does not even recognize Israel, and from Eritrea.
But incendiary remarks by prominent politicians are not helpful, and have fuelled anti-migrant sentiment among some Israelis and some regrettable incidents, including a recent arson attack on Eritreans. “Get out of the neighbourhood,” was recently spray-painted on the wall of an apartment housing Eritrean migrants in Tel Aviv. It was the latest in a series of sometimes violent protests against the presence in Israel of a large number of African asylum seekers.
A new law that permits Israel to lock up migrants for three years without trial will not solve the problem. And the 16-foot-tall steel fence being built along the Egyptian border is unlikely to keep out all migrants, either.
Instead, the government should take a more considered approach that would benefit the nation of 7.8 million, which has low unemployment and a need for temporary workers.
Israel is already a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees. However, it does not have an official refugee policy. If claims from those who say they are fleeing persecution or civil war were properly processed, they could be given permission to work – even if they were not allowed permanent residency. False claimants could be deported. This would lessen the burden on humanitarian agencies and address some of the social problems.
To his credit, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman recently asked Israelis to take “exceptional caution on matters of injury to the other, the guest and the foreigner.”
History has shown that the country is capable of integrating non-white outsiders – including the 120,000 Ethiopian Jews who arrived a generation ago. Israel, the Middle East’s most stable and liberal democracy, has an opportunity to set new standards for asylum policy in the region.