Inside Story

The plight of African migrants in Israel

Are policies towards asylum seekers a legitimate stand against undocumented immigrants or a violation of human rights?

Thousands of African migrants in Israel have taken to the streets to voice their frustration at tough new immigration policies. They demonstrated outside Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, seeking recognition as refugees.

Some 60,000 migrants, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan, have poured across the border with Egypt since 2006. Many hope for asylum but Israel says they are illegal job-seekers.

Unfortunately we have almost a hundred years of baggage with the Palestinians, in which there is a lot of bad blood and a lot of mutual animosity, due to just the events of the last century. And it's hard to get Israelis to really wrap their heads around what is the role of the other in our society, and here we have these asylum seekers coming from Africa - it's a new non-Jewish population in our society. And I'm hoping that this helps us to formulate a better approach that we could then maybe also apply to our relations with the Palestinians.

by Yehuda Hakohen, peace activist and member of the Semitic Action movement for grassroots dialogue

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that what he called ‘infiltrators’ were threatening Israel’s Jewish social fabric.

And Israeli Interior Minister Gideon Saar added: “There are tens of millions in Africa who are seeking shelter in Western countries. Because we’re the only Western country with a land border with Africa, the potential danger for our country is great.”

He went on: “We are fighting a struggle for the future character of our country and we have no intention of compromising.”

“Over the years Israel has welcomed 100,000 black Africans from Ethiopia who claim Jewish ancestry,” said Al Jazeera’s Tom Ackerman, reporting from Jerusalem. “But the thousands more Africans who’ve reached Israel in search of work and physical security have never won legal recognition.”

“Their only point of access, the border with Egypt, [has] been sealed by a high-tech fence. And under a newly amended law, those still in the country may be sent to a night-time detention facility in the Negev desert for up to one year without trial,” he added.

Israel has spent two years constructing a security fence along its border with Egypt, running for 240km from of the edge of the Gaza Strip to Israel’s southernmost city of Eilat. The barrier is five metres high, topped with high-tech surveillance equipment, and cost $370m.

And from Israel’s point of view it seems to be working. Israel says almost 10,000 people entered the country illegally in the first half of 2012 but that number had dropped to just 34 in the first six months of 2013.

Israel also amended its controversial Infiltration Law in December. It now allows for migrants to be held indefinitely pending voluntary repatriation, deportation or resolution of asylum requests. And the new detention centre built in the southern Negev desert is described by the government as an open prison and designed to serve as a halfway house.

Sudanese migrant Bsow Ibrahim is a member of the committee of African Asylum Seekers in Israel. He told Al Jazeera African migrants were not travelling to Israel to find jobs, but seeking refuge from problems in their own country.

And he has some sympathy. One Israeli writer, David Grossman, told protesters in Tel Aviv he was “embarrassed and ashamed” of Israel’s treatment of migrants, and the problem should be dealt with in the “most humane way”.

Meanwhile the United Nations’ high commissioner for refugees says Israel’s policy causes “hardship and suffering” and flouts the 1951 world treaty on the treatment of refugees.

So, are Israel’s policies towards African asylum seekers a legitimate stand against undocumented immigrants, or a violation of human rights?

Al Jazeera made every effort to get someone representing the Israeli government to help answer this question, but we were told no-one was available.

So to discuss this, Inside Story presenter Stephen Cole is joined by guests: Yehuda Hakohen, a peace activist and member of the Semitic Action movement for grassroots dialogue; and David Sheen, a journalist, who co-produced a short documentary called Israel’s New Racism – The Persecution of African Migrants in the Holy Land.

“There is this security culture that is the dominant ideology in the country and the government, which says that if the Jewish people ever drop below a certain percentage in the population of the country, then they are going to be victims of persecution. It’s based on a legitimate fear or previous persecution, but it’s taken to a paranoia extent where they are just working on all levels to prevent any repopulation by non-Jews.”

David Sheen, journalist