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Illegal immigration from Africa to Israel

Illegal immigration from Africa to Israel (often also referred to as infiltration by the Israeli media[1][2][3][4][5] and by Israeli government organizations;[6][7][8] however, the use of the term has been criticized[9]) refers to the act of African nationals entering Israel in violation of Israeli law. This phenomenon began in the second half of the 2000s, when a large number of people from Africa entered Israel, mainly through the fenced border between Israel and Egypt. According to the data of the Israeli Interior Ministry, 26,635 people arrived illegally in this way by July 2010,[10] and over 55,000 by January 2012.[11] In an attempt to curb the influx,[12] Israel constructed the Egypt–Israel barrier, which was completed in December 2013.[13]

As of January 2018, according to the Population and Immigration Authority (PIBA) there are 37,288 African migrants in Israel, not including children born to migrants in Israel.[14]

African asylum seekers comprise 0.5% of Israel's population[citation needed]. Most African migrants are generally regarded to be legitimate asylum seekers by various human rights organizations.[15][16]

Many of the migrants seek an asylum status under the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. However, many of them, mostly citizens of Eritrea and Sudan, cannot be forcibly deported from Israel. Under international law, Eritrea citizens (who, since 2009, form the majority of the undocumented workers in Israel) cannot be deported due to the opinion of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that Eritrea has a difficult internal situation and a forced recruitment and therefore the Eritrean immigrants are defined as a "temporary humanitarian protection group". Israeli authorities have stated that they could not deport Sudanese directly back to Sudan because Israel has no diplomatic ties to Sudan.[17] Accordingly, the Israeli authorities grant temporary residence through "conditional release permits" which must be renewed every one to four months, depending on the discretion of the individual immigration official.[17] Various authorities in Israel estimate that 80–90% of the undocumented workers live primarily in two centers: more than 60% in Tel Aviv and more than 20% Eilat, with a few in Ashdod, Jerusalem and Arad.[10]



The UNHCR has declared Eritrea a country in humanitarian crisis. In the Darfur region in western Sudan, a genocide has been taking place since 2003. As a result, many of its residents became refugees and fled to Egypt. Added to those were refugees from southern Sudan, where civil war took place between the predominantly Arab Muslim inhabitants of the north and the non-Arab, Christians and animists inhabitants of the south.

In 2009, in reports to UNHCR, Israel stated that 90% of the persons who arrived illegally from Sudan and Eritrea were genuine refugees.[18]

Status of the migrantsEdit

According to the government, the majority of the migrants are seeking economic opportunity. This is not the case among Israel's allies such as the United States, where the vast majority of Eritrean and Sudanese applicants are accepted as refugees. Once in Israel, African migrants have sought refugee status for fleeing forced, open-ended conscription in Eritrea or ethnic cleansing in the Darfur region of Sudan, but the government of Israel maintains that these areas merely have a poor human rights record, which does not automatically entitle one to asylum. To qualify, applicants must establish that they face the risk of personal harm or persecution if they return to their country. The Interior Ministry has failed to review the vast majority of asylum requests.[19]

Most migrants request refugee status after arriving in Israel, in accordance with the United Nations's Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Israel does not review the status of the individual immigrants originating from Eritrea or Sudan, who constitute about 83% of the total people coming to Israel across the Egyptian border,[20] and instead automatically grants them a "temporary protection group" status. This status allows these people to have temporary residence right within Israel, which must be renew every 3 months; usually this also means that they would be eligible for a work permit in Israel. In the past Israel also granted an automatic "temporary protection group" status to all citizens of the Ivory Coast and South Sudan, although since then the validity of this status has expired. Regarding the other asylum requests filed by citizens of other countries and examined individually, the Interior Ministry stated that only a fraction of them were actually eligible for refugee status.[21]

Development of illegal immigration from Africa to IsraelEdit

The Israeli government originally tolerated the new arrivals from Africa. It allowed their entry and many migrants found menial jobs in hotels and restaurants. But after their numbers swelled, concerns were raised.[19] In the second half of the 2000s decade, there was a significant increase in the number of undocumented workers from Africa to Israel who crossed the Egyptian border. In 2006 about 1,000 undocumented workers were detained; in 2007 about 5,000 were detained; in 2008 about 8,700 were detained; and in 2009 about 5,000 were detained.[22] In the first half of 2010 the migration rate even further increased in the first seven months when over 8,000 undocumented workers were caught.[23] The total number of undocumented workers is clearly greater than these figures, because many were not apprehended.[citation needed] The early wave of undocumented workers came mainly from Sudan, while in 2009 the majority of the immigrants were from Eritrea.[citation needed]

In early May 2010, it was estimated that 24,339 undocumented workers resided in Israel, of whom the number of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees who are not deportable under international law was 18,959: 5,649 Sudanese and 13,310 Eritreans. 16,766 of them received a special visa (ס 2א 5) granted to illegal immigrants who are non-deportable asylum seekers. Officially, the visa allows them only to stay in the country, but in practice the state also allows the refugees to work and avoids imposing fines on the Israeli employers who employ them. This special visa requires renewal every three months.[24] The Israeli immigration police patrols the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv regularly and arrests asylum seekers who do not carry a valid visa; the punishment can be one to three months in prison. In his book "The Nightmare of the Exile" Adam Ahmed describes how such an arrest is performed.[25][self-published source]

141 immigrants, mostly from Ethiopia, received refugee status.

According to the IDF's Operations Division in 2008, most of the countries from where the illegal immigrants came are (in descending order): Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast and Nigeria. Most of the illegal immigrants (85%) were men.[26]

Immigration to IsraelEdit

Most migrants initially arrive in Egypt, and from there they often pay sums of up to two thousand dollars for Bedouin smugglers to transfer them to the border between Egypt and Israel. There have been cases of abuse against the female migrants committed by the Bedouin smugglers, including rape, kidnapping for ransom, and murder. Another danger for the migrants includes the Egyptian army policy to shoot at them in order to prevent crossing the Egypt/Israel border.[27][28]

To contain the illegal entry of persons, construction of the Egypt–Israel barrier commenced in 2012 and was completed in 2015. 9,570 citizens of various African countries entered Israel illegally in the first half of 2012, while only 34 did the same in the first six months of 2013, after construction of the main section of the barrier was completed.[29][30][31] After the entire fence was completed, the number of migrant crossings had dropped to 16 in 2016.[32]

Numbers and place of residenceEdit

As of April 2012, 59,858 illegal immigrants who were never imprisoned in detention facilities have illegally enter into Israel (in August 2010 the number of the imprisoned was 1,900).[33] Several thousands of them did not end up staying in the country.[34] The Israeli department of immigration does not keep continuous supervision over their place of residence but, according to estimates based on data from the Israeli police, the local authorities and the aid organizations, approximately 34,000 illegal immigrants originated from Eritrea, about 15,000 originated from Sudan and 10,000 originated from other countries. The Israeli Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration does not keep detailed documentation regarding their place of residence, but according to estimates from 2011, which are based on data from the Israeli police, the local authorities and the NGOs, circa 15,000–17,000 illegal immigrants lived in Tel Aviv (mainly in southern Tel Aviv, though the number also includes illegal immigrants living in Bat Yam and Bnei Brak) and 4,000–8,000 living in Eilat. While the estimates in Ashdod range from 1,500 to 2,000 illegal immigrants, in Jerusalem range from 1,000 to 8,000 illegal immigrants, and in Arad range from 400 to 600 illegal immigrants.[35] As of 2017, only 39,274 of those who entered the country remain.[14]

Involvement in crimeEdit

In a discussion held by the police commissioner Dudi Cohen in December 2010, he stated that while there is a decline in cases of robberies in the general population, there is a dramatic increase in this type of crime among the illegal immigrants. According to the research department of the Israel Police and Israel's foreign immigrants' crime is characterized by predominantly sectoral internal crime, in which a gun is not reported, and illegal immigrants generally have no interest in complaining to the police.[23] Due to an increase in criminal acts and the feeling of insecurity among the residents of southern Tel Aviv, the Israeli police established a new station near the New central bus station and the Shapira neighborhood.[36] The station includes approximately 100 police officers and is expected to accommodate about 150 police officers. According to the data of the Israeli Police, which was presented to the Knesset in March 2012, from 2007 there was a steady increase in the involvement in crime of the illegal immigrants, both due to the significant increase in their numbers and for various other reasons. In 2011, 1,200 criminal cases were opened against illegal immigrants from Africa, half of them in the Tel Aviv district. This is an increase of 54% in comparison to the previous year.[37]

Massive protests supporting the illegal immigrants and promoting their remaining in Israel have taken place[38][39] simultaneous with other Israelis calling for their deportation.[40][41] Crime is a major factor for residents who call for the government to repatriate the migrants.[42] Examples include the murder of 68-year-old Esther Galili[43] who was beaten to death near her South Tel Aviv home in 2010 by a drunken Sudanese migrant. Her daughter Corine Galili is now an activist with the Residents of Southern Tel Aviv council.[44] Another example includes the rape of 83-year-old Ester Nahman by a 17-year-old Eritrean migrant in 2013.[45][46] There has also been a concern of crimes committed by migrants against migrants including rape and murder.[47][48] According to David Filo, the police commander in charge of the district that includes south Tel Aviv, the local police station went from only four or five officers before the wave of immigrants, to more than 200 as of 2017 on duty around the clock due to the increase in crime. He stated that statistics indicate most of the crimes reported are between immigrants and include theft, drug sales and domestic violence.[49]

Israeli police reported experiencing difficulties dealing with criminal cases involving illegal immigrants originating from Africa, since the police do not possess interpreters who are capable of speaking the Tigrinya language spoken in Eritrea. In addition, the Israeli legal system also has reported a serious difficulty in conducting proper criminal procedures involving suspects who speak only the Tigrinya language.[50]

In her ruling on the Holot "open detention facility", Israeli Supreme Court justice Edna Arbel stated that there is disagreement regarding the factual situation, whereas there are studies that show that the level of crime committed by infiltrators is lower than that in society in general. She however emphasized that the distressful feeling of the residents of South Tel Aviv that the level of security in their neighborhoods has decreased considerably, should not be underestimated.[51]

Development of the state's treatment of African asylum seekersEdit

The entrance to Holot immigration detention center, Negev desert, Israel.

In 2010 Israel began building a barrier along sections of its border with Egypt to curb the influx of refugees from African countries. Construction was completed in January 2013.[52] 230 km of fence have been built.[53] While 9,570 citizens of various African countries entered Israel illegally in the first half of 2012, only 34 did the same in the first six months of 2013, after construction of the barrier was completed. It represents a decrease of over 99%.[54][55]

Israel also began deporting thousands of illegal immigrants who were residing in the country.[56][57] In 2013 Israel began to deport illegal immigrants to Uganda, reportedly in exchange for weapons and military training. In November 2017 Israel announced its intent to deport thousands of illegal immigrants by March 2018.[58] African migrants are told to choose between returning to their home countries or being sent to third countries, that are rumored to be Rwanda and Uganda.[59] The Israeli Knesset announced that illegal immigrants who do not leave by March 2018 will be jailed until they leave Israel.[60]

In 2012, the Israeli Knesset passed an "anti-infiltration law." Many Africans who entered after the bill's passage or those whose visas have expired have been to the or the neighboring Saharonim prison. Advocates like MK Michal Rozin visited Saharonim and said that migrants received adequate food and medical care and were not mistreated, but said that sending migrants there was inhumane. However, conditions for many refugees elsewhere in the region are worse, and Israeli officials maintained that conditions there were adequate.[61] After the Supreme Court of Israel declared that the long-term custody of migrants in Sahronim was unconstitutional, the government opened Holot, an open detention center, in December 2013. The 1,800 residents at Holot are allowed to leave but are required to sign in once a day and return for an evening curfew.[19][62] Israeli courts temporarily cancelled the summonses of African migrants to the Holot facility, and froze others until appeals can be heard against them. Judges also criticized the summons process, saying there exist fundamental problems, including the failure to examine individual circumstances and the lack of hearings for illegal immigrants. The government stated that hearings were not necessary because ordering the migrants to travel to Holot does not violate their human rights.[63]

On 22 September 2014, the High Court struck down the anti-infiltration law (under which the Holot facility operated) and ordered the state to close Holot within 90 days.[64] The court addressed two measures: (1) whether to limit the detention of migrants, and (2) whether to close Holot. On both measures, the court sided with the petitioners (the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, ASSAF, Kav LaOved, Physicians for Human Rights–Israel, and Amnesty International–Israel).[65] The ruling said that conditions at the facility were an "unbearable violation of [their] basic rights, first and foremost the right to freedom and the right to dignity".[64] Illegal migrants can no longer be detained for up to a year without trial, however detention continues within legal boundaries.[66] The detentions in Holot have continued, with illegal immigrants being detained for a year and then being prevented from living in Tel Aviv and Eilat upon their release.[67] In November 2017, the Israeli government announced that it would be closing the Holot Detention Center within four months.[68]

A law passed in 2017 required that employers impose a 20 per cent deduction on the wages of workers who entered the country illegally from Egypt. The deducted money is deposited in a fund along with an employer paid tax of 16 per cent. This money is accessible to workers only when they leave Israel.[69]

In April 2018, Israel reached an agreement with the United Nations to expel around 16,000 African migrants to Western countries in exchange for granting temporary residency in Israel to the same number.[70] Shortly after, however, the deal was cancelled by the Israeli government.[71]

Aid organizationsEdit

Israel has a number of organizations focused on helping the asylum seekers in Israel (mainly by legal aid) including the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, ASSAF, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, African Refugees Development Center and Association for Civil Rights in Israel. The secular Jewish organization Bina, located in south Tel Aviv, has helped asylum seekers as well as Israeli citizens understand refugee rights, and has undertaken advocacy and educational activities including frequent trips for Israelis to visit the Holot Detention Center. Most of these organization are funded by the New Israel Fund.[72] Relief organizations have been involved in discussions held in Knesset committees on this issue and have submitted a petition against the measures the state has taken to put a halt to the phenomenon of immigration.[citation needed]

Reactions in Israel to asylum seekers and illegal immigrationEdit

The situation underscores the tension between two strong feelings in Israel. Israel was founded in the wake of the Holocaust and has provided refuge to Jews fleeing oppression around the world. On one hand, many Israelis feel Israel has a special responsibility to assist refugees in such dire conditions. On the other hand, many Israelis fear the continued migration of illegal immigrants and refugees would threaten the Jewish majority.[19][62][73]

Israeli reaction to African migrants has been mixed, with groups protesting on both sides. Human Rights advocates have been outspoken about their concerns about the treatment of asylum seekers and migrants. In 2010, Israelis protested the construction of the Holot detention facility, which was built to detain illegal immigrants, stating that its construction goes against Human Rights values. At the same time, residents of South Tel Aviv demonstrated against the presence of foreigners living in their communities.[74] In 2012, nearly 1,000 Israelis, mostly from neighborhoods in South Tel Aviv staged a protest against illegal immigrants, joined by Member of Knesset, Miri Regev, they asked the government for deportation and expulsion of migrants from Africa. MK Miri Regev stated "the Sudanese were a cancer in our body." This protest led to destruction of property and businesses owned by Sudanese and Eritrean people as well as violence against said people.[75][76] In 2015, an immigrant from Eritrea, Habtom Zarhum, was beaten to death by a mob after being misidentified as an assailant in a terrorist attack at the Beersheva bus station.[77]

In the face of discrimination against asylum seekers, who are often believed to be migrant workers or illegal immigrants, many Israelis have continued to show their support over the years for the community. Refugee Seders have been held each year during the Jewish holiday of Passover, most recently taking place at Holot detention facility to show solidarity and support to the men living in detention.[78] Support for refugees and immigrants to Israel is also demonstrated through the work of numerous non-profit organizations, including Kav LaOved (Worker's Hotline), ARDC, ASSAF. In late 2017, early 2018, prominent North American Jewish organizations joined with Israeli NGO’s to decry Israel’s recent decisions to close Holot and deport asylum seekers.[79]

The Israeli demographer Arnon Soffer has expressed his opposition to the African illegal immigration phenomenon for several reasons. He claims that from a security perspective, they may serve as "informant" or as "operatives of hostile states or terrorist organizations". Socially, he claims that they are contributing to the congestion in the cities and to the rise in crime. From the demographic perspective, he perceives the asylum seekers and illegal immigrants to be a demographic threat to the Jewish majority. According to Sofer, failing to stop the illegal immigration waves at an early stage will only lead to much larger waves of illegal immigration in the future.[26]

The Israeli economic commentator Nehemiah Shtrasler estimated that the illegal immigrants take the places of weaker manual workers, causing loss of jobs and a reduction in the wages. He also claimed that they burden the health care, welfare and education systems. "We would never be able to raise the standard of living of the needy and reduce the gaps, if we keep on absorbing more and more destitute people."[80]

The Israeli MK Ya'akov Katz (Katzele), who headed the government committee aimed at creating a solution to what they perceive to be an issue of illegal asylum seekers migrating to Israel, warned from immigration through the Israel–Egypt border and stated that if the current immigration rate to Israel would continue, within a few years there would be hundreds of thousands of illegal workers in Israel and that this would constitute a "demographic threat" to Israel, in addition to the other issues this situation would lead to, such as an "increase in crime and poverty in the areas in which the immigrants concentrate". One of Katz's proposals was to establish a city near the Egyptian border, where the immigrants would be gathered before being deported from the country.[81]

In December 2011, Mayor of Tel Aviv Ron Huldai addressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and demanded that the government would take "immediate emergency actions" against the immigrants. Huldai stated "Israel cannot continue to ignore the growing wave of immigrants, which at this point it is clear to everyone that they infiltrate to Israel as migrant workers and that they are not in an existential threat." Huldai called to "protect Israel's borders against infiltration" and also to allocate the necessary resources for the immigrants who already entered the country "and caused severe distress to the residents of the neighborhoods who were forced to deal with this influx".[82]

In Israeli cities that have high rates of African illegal immigrants, a resistance has emerged among the local population against this phenomenon. In mid-2010, a demonstration was held in Eilat against the non-action of the Israeli government, the residents claimed that they are now afraid to walk outside at certain neighborhoods at night.[83] In the Shapira and Kiryat Shalom neighborhoods in the southern part of Tel Aviv a number of real estate agents have stated that they intend not to rent apartments in these neighborhoods to the illegal immigrants.[84]

On 23 May 2012 a demonstration was held in the Hatikva Quarter, in which more than a thousand Israeli protesters protested against the way the Israeli government has been handling the influx of immigrants so far. During the demonstration the MKs Miri Regev, Danny Danon, Ronit Tirosh and Michael Ben-Ari held speeches. Later on the protest turned violent, as the participants began attacking passersby people, shattered panes of stores belonging to owners of African descent, burned garbage cans and clashed with the police forces.[85] President Shimon Peres issued a condemnation of the violent words and actions against the African migrant workers, calling on Israelis to refrain from racism and incitement, saying: "Hatred of foreigners contradicts the fundamental principles of Judaism. I am well aware of the difficulties faced by the residents of south Tel Aviv [and other similar areas], but violence is not the solution."[86]

In a Channel 2 interview in November 2013, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai scoffed at government policy toward the migrants, saying, "Can 50,000 people be a demographic threat? That's a mockery. ... The truth is they will remain here. They are human beings and I must take care of them."[87]

On the other hand, demonstrations, rallies and other event supporting the refugees have also been held regularly.[88][89][90] On 28 December 2013 thousands have protested in Tel Aviv against detention of asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea. The protesters, marched from Levinsky Park in South Tel Aviv to city center, decrying the detention without trial of African refugees in the Saharonim and Holot detention facilities. Migrants have reportedly said to fear for their life should they return to their home countries.[91]

On 15 January 2014, the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers met to discuss the Immigration and Border Authority policy toward illegal immigrants and its impact on the business sector. African migrants were present and participated in the Knesset meeting. They were supported by MK Michal Rozin of Meretz.[92]

In April 2014, activists organized a Passover seder with asylum seekers at the Holot facility to recall the Passover story and call attention to the plight of the migrants. Similar seders were held in support of the migrants in Tel Aviv and Washington.[62] Similar events took place in 2015 and 2016, the seder in 2016 also celebrated in Holot detention center was dedicated to raise awareness to the shortage and poor quality of food in Holot[93]

Reactions among American JewsEdit

Reactions among American Jews span the spectrum of Israeli politics on this issue and are evolving into a robust debate. The Maryland-based refugee rights organization HIAS, whose Israeli branch has been actively assisting African asylum seekers,[94] has vocally opposed the Israeli government’s policy toward the asylum seekers and has called on Israel to evaluate their refugee status claims in accordance with international law.[95] The Los Angeles-based organization StandWithUs, whose mission is "supporting Israel around the world -- through education and fighting anti-Semitism",[96] states that "most of the migrants came to Israel seeking work opportunities, not as refugees escaping war"; as StandWithUs elaborates, "unlike refugees who are fleeing war or persecution, economic migrants leave their countries in search of better work opportunities."[97] However, globally, national authorities have found asylum seekers from Eritrea deserving of refugee status in 84% of applications, and have granted refugee status to Sudanese asylum seekers 56% of the time, whereas Israel has only granted 1% of asylum petitions from these asylum seekers.[95] Mandatory lifetime conscription is among the human-rights abuses in Eritrea from which they may be fleeing.[98] The Rabbinical Assembly, the clergy organization of Conservative Judaism, passed a resolution in 2016 stating that "Israel’s Ministry of the Interior has been very reluctant to grant refugee status to bona fide asylum seekers" and calling on Israel to do so.[99] The rabbinic human-rights organization T’ruah, based in New York, has made it a priority to encourage Israel to evaluate all asylum seekers’ claims fairly.[98]

See alsoEdit


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