TEL AVIV – A few dozen illegal migrants from a handful of African countries were arrested by the Israeli authorities earlier this week, just as the country was getting ready to deport several thousand other illegal migrants. Government action against illegal immigration is finally noticeable; promises made a long time ago are finally being fulfilled. A crisis has been averted — or so the government would like Israelis to believe.
Alas, Israel’s problem with illegal immigration will not go away overnight.
The numbers are just too high. More than 50,000 illegal African migrants live here, according to official estimates. One recent report says that southern Tel Aviv, with a population of about 100,000, is 25 percent illegal migrants. And these figures seem to be growing, according to Israel’s immigration authority.
Many migrants come to Israel legally and overstay without a visa extension. But the real problem, which is now in the spotlight, is with the migrants who come into the country illegally through weak spots in the southern border, after grueling, costly and at times violent journeys through Egypt. All come from poor African countries and many from conflict-ridden countries. Israel is the closest and most prosperous destination for Africans in search of a better life.
Often, after catching illegal migrants from Africa, the Israeli government can’t send them back because of unstable political situations that make it inhumane or illegal to deport them (Eritrea), or a lack of relations with thehome country makes it technically impractical (Sudan).Thus, many of Israel’s illegal migrants also have a claim on being refugees, complicating the problem.
Even when the migrants are caught at the border, they are often released into the country for a lack of better options. Israel is not well prepared for this wave of Africans. The country does not have many places to hold illegal migrants, so in most cases they are left to roam freely.
They are, by and large, young, poor, unemployed men. They stay awake late into the night, often drinking on the streets. They make many locals – rightly or wrongly – feel insecure. These migrants have been coming for years, but only recently have Israeli citizens decided they’ve had enough.
A couple of weeks ago, residents in southern Tel Aviv started demonstrating. Why now? That’s a good question. Why not a year ago, or half a year ago are even better ones. I don’t know.
Some of the protests became violent and ugly, with racial overtones or outright racism. A handful of elected officials poured oil on the fire by making harsh comments, calling the migrants “a cancer,” blaming them for spreading AIDS, and worsening an already delicate situation.
The authorities finally took action – resulting in the arrests this week. The government is now hastily striving for a coherent policy. A fence along the Egyptian border is already up, but a second fence on the Jordanian border to the east is under consideration. More deportations are in the works. And there is talk of building a tent city to accommodate those who cannot be currently deported.
It is heartbreaking, even shocking, to see Israelis making racist commentsand taking actions that smack of hate. It is also unsurprising. Israel is a small country, obsessed with the need to guard its Jewish majority. It is also too small to absorb so many poor illegal migrants.
For the last two weeks Israelis have been debating the many complications of this problem. Questions of morality are naturally raised, coupled with considerations of the unique history of their country with its roots in immigration and persecution of the Jews. These issues have no easy solutions, and can perhaps be summed up in one question: Can a very small country have a very big heart?
The answer, sadly, is no. Not always, anyway. Given our history, demography, current political circumstances and values, a serious effort to block illegal immigration from Africa – or any other region — is essential. It is essential if we want Israel to remain Jewish. It is essential if we want Israel to remain prosperous.
Israel can and should absorb a reasonable number of refugees, but it should not be expected to be the ultimate destination for Africans escaping poverty and war. Deportation is necessary to convince the next potential waves of migrants that coming to Israel would not be wise.
Searches and arrests, erecting of border fences, bolstering of guard units, kicking out poor migrants – all these scenes will now become a chapter in Jewish history. Israel has no other choice.