January 13, 2014 By Shauqeen Mizaj

Is Israel all set to remove ‘the African Cancer?’


iAt a rally last year, lawmaker Miri Regev called the migrants “a cancer in the body” of the nation. She apologized later. But in a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 52 percent Israelis agreed with her.

African migrants in Israel have recently staged demonstration in front of the Parliament draw attention to Israel’s human rights violations. It has led to discussion around the globe dominating headlines for the past few days. Tens of thousands of protestors mainly Eritreans and Sudanese marched in Rabin square, Tel Aviv, demanding recognition as refugees and opposing the state policy of long-term detention. The African immigrants have been rallying against the Israeli government in the past week in public squares, foreign embassies and government offices hoping to get attention and help of the international community.
Taking their day off from their low-paid jobs like dish washing and house cleaning, thousands joined the protest demanding better treatment the right to work legally and the speedy processing of their asylum bids. . Slogans like “We are all refugees; we need protection” and “Yes to freedom, no to prison” could be heard in unison. The protestors published a call to action on Facebook on their page dedicated to the campaign.
The protests have been triggered by the Israeli parliament’s approval of an amendment, last month, in the country’s Prevention of Infiltration Law that crushed the hopes of thousands. According to the law, illegal immigrants without valid visas would be detained for a year without trial and those already present in the country would be sent to the new “open detention facility” in Negev desert. The law which allowed for the detention of migrants for three years without trial was struck down by Israel’s Supreme Court last September. The law makers, in response, passed a law that would allow one year detention without trial, adding yet another chapter in Israel’s continuing human rights violations.
The campaigners were reported as saying that they would be holding rallies outside the United Nations office and the foreign embassies in Tel Aviv. A letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asking him to free the detainers and to process asylum requests was read aloud during the protests. One of the leading activists said that the outbursts would demonstrate their importance to the Israeli economy and would compel the government to change its policies.
The Prime Minister reacted to the demonstrations saying that they would not help and the government would continue to deport illegal migrants from the country. “As we were able to stem the illegal infiltration of our borders, we are steadfast in our commitment to evict those who entered before we closed the border” he added. He said that the migrants were not refugees but people who broke the law and would be dealt with to the fullest extent of the law. The migrants are in a complete state of chaos and fear of being detained with many terrified to leave their homes. Many have been arrested and many more have been summoned for detention including women and children. The only choice for them is to either get arrested or go back home.
Most African immigrants in Israel are from Sudan, Eritrea and the Darfur region where crime rates and genocide make life arduous for citizens. Israel doesn’t want to forcibly deport them since the international law doesn’t permit so. Nor do they want the migrants to stay. Also returning to the home country means danger for the migrants. Many of them don’t even have a home to return to as they left their belongings in ruin due to the battle between the government and rebel forces. In Sudan entering Israel means a ten year imprisonment and in Eritrea the returnees suffer so much that ninety percent of their pleas for asylum is granted in most countries, reports human rights groups. So, Israel wants the migrants to leave voluntarily and they are ready to pay sums from $1,500 to $3,500 for those who leave on their own.
One way to accomplish this is by making life difficult for them by sending thousands to a desert center. The new open facility is run by the Israel Prison Services and provides healthcare and social services. It’s neither a prison nor a shelter but something in between and is surrounded by a fence topped with coils of razor wire. The detainers can leave during the day reporting for roll calls thrice with no permission to work and will be locked by nightfall. The detention center can hold up to 3300 immigrants and was opened on December 12. It’s supposed that the first residents would be those who have been in Israel for a long time. Hotline for Migrant Workers, an association for the African migrants, accused the government of compelling the immigrants in jail to accept payments and leave. More than a dozen agreed to leave to Eritrea to gain release from jail.
It all started when streams of Africans mainly from Sudan and Eritrea crossed the Egyptian border in 2005 in to Israel mainly fleeing famine, bondage, conflicts and war. Most of them arrived by flights and then crossed the border into Israel. Between 2005 and 2012, they came in small groups risking their lives often bribing the Bedouin smugglers to transfer them to the border and escaping the sight of the army patrols. Cases of abuse including rape of the female illegal migrants by the Bedouin smugglers have been reported. Another danger is the shoot at sight by the Egyptian army to prevent crossing the border. Many more entered the country illegally, mostly Eritreans with the number gradually increasing to 45, 000 between 2008 and 2011. As the African population in Israel increased, the initial sympathy for the migrants turned into aversion leading to protests.
Consequently, the government came under pressure. Member of Parliament Eli Yishai said the migrants had been encouraged by “anti-Zionist human rights organizations”. In 2012, Israel built a high tech steel fence with cameras, radars and sensors along its border to cut off incursion. The construction was completed in January 2013 and since then there has been a gradual decline in the number of intruders into the country. According to Israeli authorities, only thirty six got through illegally in between January and July last year and there have been no migrations for the past few months.
Tens of thousands of illegal immigrants live in crowded apartments in south of Tel Aviv. Israelis blame the migrants for increased crime rates and poverty. In 2011, 1200 criminal cases were reported against the immigrants, half of them opened in Tel Aviv district alone. According to the Israeli police, since the immigrants speak the Tigrinya language, the official language of Eritrea, they experience difficulties in dealing with them and conducting proper criminal procedures due to lack of interpreters. At a rally last year, lawmaker Miri Regev called the migrants “a cancer in the body” of the nation. She apologized later. But in a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 52 percent Israelis agreed with her. According to immigration authority reports there are about 60, 000 African immigrants in Israel out of which 3920 were deported last year. The government says that the migrants who enter the country as economic opportunists pose a threat to the Jewish character and democracy of the country. Israel being a Jewish country welcomes Jews from around the globe proving subsidies and language training to improve their lives. But the African migrants are mostly Muslims and Christians who pose religious threats. For them who come from a country with so much humanitarian crisis, Israel is one country with a Western-style democracy and flourishing economy which they can reach on foot. “There are currently around thirty million people moving around Africa, people who have left their home countries and are looking for a place to be,” Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar said at a hearing in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. “We can all understand that pressure, but if we are too liberal, then we will lose the country.”
The stories first started appearing in newspapers in 2007 and the media and public began using the government term “infiltrators”. Walpurga Englbrecht, the UNHCR representative in Israel, criticized Israel’s usage of the term “infiltrators” for the African immigrants saying that most of them were refugees deserving international protection. She said that the new law caused “hardship and suffering” and was “not in line with” a 1951 world treaty on the treatment of refugees. She added that the new open facility “would appear to operate as a detention center from where there is no release. This means in effect indefinite detention”. The Israeli government is pursuing the third party countries in Africa to accept the migrants in exchange for a benefits package including weapons, military knowledge, economic and agricultural aid. Negotiations with Uganda are going on at present, Israeli news media say. One is yet to see whether Israel will continue to deport the immigrants, detain them or elevate them to refugee status.

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