The situation of African Asylum seekers in Israel is of great concern and is generating awful press coverage for Israel. Well over 50,000 African refugees currently seek asylum in Israel, the vast majority from Eritrea with a substantial number from Sudan. Over the past few weeks they have marched in protest about their treatment and lack of recognition as asylum seekers. The African asylum seekers are among nearly half a million residents of Israel who do not have legal status in the country, a number which includes large numbers of Chinese, Filipino, and Thai agricultural and construction workers. The vast majority of these residents without status are resident in Israel because of the possibility of financial gain.
While there have been many concerns expressed over the years about foreign workers in general and their impact on Israeli society and Israel’s economy, concerns about African residents without status have become acute in recent years particularly because they seek the ability to work and asylum status, something that would require Israel to grant them long term residency rights and meet a host of other obligations. Israel’s government has been reluctant to process any claims for asylum to this point and views all of the African asylum seekers as job seekers, much like those from southeast Asia, except that it has treated them differently, singling them out for arrest and detention, actively preventing their working to support themselves, creating a detention facility for them in Holot in the Negev, currently housing nearly 2,000 people, and striving to encourage their repatriation.
The Holot facility is 50 miles from the nearest city, Be’er Sheva, and residents must check in three times a day or be arrested, meaning that they are completely isolated. From a Times of Israel article published last week:
The camp is surrounded by a double fence, topped with barbed wire and patrolled by security guards. The winters are bitter cold, and summer temperatures can soar to 40 degrees (100 degrees Fahrenheit.) Inmates sleep 10 people to a room, all sharing a single bathroom. Anybody who violates the rules gets sent to the Saharonim prison, where conditions are even harsher.
Prior to 2008, Israel would refer applications for asylum to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR. Since that time, however, Israel has retained approval of asylum status and has created a mechanism through the Interior Ministry to put it into practice. The Interior Minister, currently Gideon Sa’ar, has repeatedly put forth the view that all of the African migrants should be treated as economic refugees, job seekers, not people deserving of asylum status. Several thousand applications for asylum status have been submitted, few have been reviewed, and none have been approved. Israel’s clear policy has been to encourage emigration by limiting the African immigrants’ quality of life. Israel has even offered to pay for repatriation flights and no few have accepted the offer, some even returning to Sudan where their lives and certainly their liberty were and remain endangered.
I know of one such refugee from the Nuba Mountains of Sudan who lived in Israel but was unable to work to support his family because of governmental policy and who then accepted a repatriation flight out of hopelessness. Once back in Sudan, the father was harassed, arrested, and detained for a time. Fearing for his safety the family fled to Ethiopia where they are struggling to get by in Addis. Going home is not an option for the Sudanese refugees.
Israel finds itself caught in a difficult situation. On the one hand, Israel cannot reasonably be expected to accept 50,000 Eritrean immigrants for the long term even if they are to be considered threatened at home, but certainly not if they are to be considered primarily or solely economic refugees seeking jobs. It is certainly true that in Eritrea people face hardship, a relative lack of liberty, and even possible human rights abuses at home. That is true for residents of a huge portion of the African continent as well as Asia. It would be true of Chinese workers resident in Israel for example.
The UN could potentially help to find other places of residence for the Eritreans in the long term but Israel would have to take responsibility for them upon declaring them refugees. There is no expectation that would actually happen at all and Israel would then become responsible to grant them residency for the indefinite future. Furthermore, the entire population is very young and could see rapid population growth, so 50,000 could become over 100,000 within a matter of a few years through childbirth alone.
Eritrean refugees are overwhelmingly Christian and do face religious oppression at home. To an extent this is true for Christians throughout much of Africa, the Middle East, and certainly China. Many see Israel as a haven for Christians to escape religious oppression and the persecution of Christians in the region is something that is often overlooked by a media that too often prefers to demonize Israel.
The situation of the Sudanese immigrants in Israel is different. They are certainly seeking the ability to work in Israel, but they are refugees from genocide in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains. Can Israel reasonably repatriate people who will face persecution and even genocide at home? Former Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who is no big supporter of welcoming the migrants, said in 2012 that “whoever is considered a refugee, and there are few, can stay.” Why is even that not happening?
The answer in part is that there has been concern that a welcoming attitude by Israel will encourage a flood of immigration. That fear has been significantly allayed by the sealing of the Sinai border. However, if people hear that life can be dramatically better in Israel, the number of people who will try to cross the border will increase dramatically and they will take greater risks to do so.
To an extent Israel finds itself facing a situation in which it must balance one of our highest directives, “Remember you were a stranger,” with the ultimate Toraitic directive, “Chai bahem,” as the rabbis say, “Live by them, do not die by them.” This means that while we should follow the Torah’s directives, we should not follow them if they are going to do us grave harm. So long as Israel can preserve its essential Jewish nature and not take on enough population that such a population constitutes a threat to the nature or well-being of the nation, Chai Bahem would not take precedence.
Israel should certainly do what it must do to maintain its security and strive to maintain the Jewish nature of the state, knowing that it was not as the Yom Hazikaron reading states, “handed to us on a silver platter,” but is the result of generations of blood, sweat, and tears. But it must also reflect Judaism’s sense of compassion and understanding, especially toward those fleeing genocidal regimes at home.
Last week, Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein prevented their entrance. Today, for the first time, asylum seekers entered the Knesset, having been invited by Members of Knesset from Meretz, Hadash, and Yesh Atid and spoke with the Committee on Foreign Workers. Also today hundreds of women and children marched in Tel Aviv to the office of the UNHCR in the hope of gaining recognition.
Thus far, the Israeli government has said that its policy of not recognizing the asylum status of African migrants and encouraging emigration instead will not change. It is likely that opposition protests to that policy will remain ongoing as well.
The Mishnah (Pesachim 10:5) tells us that:
In every generation, a person is obligated to see him or herself as though he or she came forth from Egypt.
Some of us take on that obligation every day and live by its meaning. It seems that many perhaps see themselves this way only during the Passover Seder and then do not see themselves as like those who quite literally came forth from Egypt into the land of promise.