Tel Aviv, Israel – The Israeli government has in recent weeks started rounding up hundreds of migrants for eventual deportation. A first batch of 127 people from South Sudan (out of some 1,500) were flown home after they had agreed to return in exchange for a free plane ticket and 1,000 euros ($1,250).
But in a hectic political climate, the Binyamin Netanyahu-led coalition government is also tasked with processing some 10,000 other Africans from countries – such as Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria – which would reportedly accept deportees under some form of legal agreements. Some migrants from these countries have already been arrested in the current sweep.
Yet the biggest challenge by far is dealing with the estimated 40,000 people from Eritrea and 10,000 from Sudan (mostly from Darfur) – who cannot under international law be sent home due to the risk of persecution. Those from Sudan could face the long arm of the law for fleeing a war-torn region for Israel, an “enemy state”.
And the Eritreans, though their government has relations with Israel, would reportedly face jail time for having evaded military service – despite the fact that most are economic migrants. Some contend that they deserve political asylum for having escaped a repressive regime in Asmara.
The Israeli government is about halfway through construction of a long fence along the Egyptian border to prevent the migrants from entering along what Israeli officials have dubbed “Bedouin smuggling routes”. With several thousand reportedly streaming in each month, the government has even suggested the possibility of another fence along the Jordanian border to keep out those who cross the Gulf of Aqaba.
The current plan is to host tens of thousands of migrants in tent cities at several detention facilities, mostly in the desert near Eilat, where many migrants enter the country and where many currently reside. The bulk of African migrants live around South Tel Aviv, in poor areas of the coastal city near the central bus station – neighbourhoods such as Hatikva, Shapira and Yad Eliyahu.
Migrants, referred to as “infiltrators” by much of the country’s right-wing press – and many officials – are typically registered with three-month permits which do not legally allow them to work, even though many are involved through a tacit loophole in low-skilled labour – construction, food sector and domestic work.
Political opposition to the migrants has been most vocal from the Israeli right, from figures such as Eli Yishai, Danny Danon and Miri Regev, who notoriously labelled the Africans a “cancer”. They have claimed there is an increase in criminal acts such as rape, as well as public health concerns and a demographic risk posed by foreigners who are not of Jewish background. Evidence of such rising criminality or falling levels of public health and a causal link with African migrants is not, however, widely available.
The migrants are mostly impoverished, but many have opened up thriving small businesses that cater largely to members of their home communities – internet cafes, ethnic eateries and hair salons.
While the diverse black African immigrant population is lumped together by political rhetoric, the predominantly Christian and Tigriniya-speaking Eritreans do not always get along with the Arabic-speaking and Muslim Sudanese from Darfur. But Israel is geopolitically aligned with Darfur, since there is common cause against Khartoum.