Israel Studies Plan to Detain Illegal Migrants
Publisher: The Wall Street Journal, USA
Author: By Joel Millman and Joshua Mitnick
Story date: 15/11/2011
Language: English

TEL AVIV – Israel is considering controversial new legislation to rebuff a surging tide of African asylum-seekers through lengthy detention time, highlighting an emotionally charged debate in a country established to absorb Jewish refugees after World War II.

Facing issues that echo the U.S. immigration dilemma, the Israeli parliament's Internal Affairs Committee on Monday began taking up Israel's so-called Prevention of Infiltration Law. Originally promulgated in 1954 to curb Palestinians seeking to return to their homes – and to counter cross-border attacks by militants – it is a law that the government now wants to modify to enable three-year detentions without trial for illegal migrants entering from Africa via Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

Migrant-rights advocates say that would be in violation of a 60-year-old United Nations convention on refugee rights, adopted largely as a response to the world's inaction to the Nazi Holocaust during World War II.

"The refugee convention says refugees can't be penalized because they came illegally," says Oded Feller, a lawyer for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

To become law, the bill must pass in the Internal Affairs Committee and two final readings in the parliamentary plenum. On Monday, the parliament's legal counsel told members of plans to submit a revised version for consideration by the Israeli cabinet. The debate is a response to a trickle of African refugees that has turned into a steady stream over more than five years. When the flow of Africans was in its early stages, a large proportion of the asylum seekers were Sudanese Muslims from Darfur. Pressure at home and from American Jewish groups for better treatment persuaded Israel to offer citizenship to several hundred of the Darfurians.

From an average of around 1,000 arrivals each month through 2010 and the first half of this year, the number of Eritrean, Sudanese and Ethiopian"infiltrators" – Israel's official term for illegal entrants rose to 2,000 per month in the summer.

Some 1,300 Africans were captured along the border with Egypt between the first and 10th of November, according to Israel's Population and Immigration Authority.

Israel's influx of illegals is still minuscule compared with the inflows to Europe or the U.S. The Tel Aviv municipality estimates there are 35,000 migrant workers in the city, Israel's second-largest, who entered the country legally. Officials estimate there are an additional 20,000 who entered legally as guest workers and stayed after their permits expired.

Concerned about maintaining a Jewish majority, Israel has looked askance at allowing "return" rights to Palestinians. There is a broad worry in Israel that too many non-Jewish residents will erode the society's ethnic core.

As with the U.S. and Europe, several factors feed the migrant flow, including the lawlessness of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, where Bedouin clans that traditionally thrived from drug and arms trafficking have branched into migrant smuggling. Also, Israel already imports farm labor from as far away as Thailand and Nepal, and employs thousands of Africans as hotel workers and janitors.

Growing dependence on foreign workers has exacerbated a growing income gap here, which Israeli economists calculate is second only to the U.S.'s among economies of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Analysts here say Israel's failure to strictly regulate the flow of low-skilled labor drags salaries down.

"From a humanitarian point of view, we should accept a small number of people who are really refugees – but not those who come to seek better jobs or a better life,"" says Momi Dahan, a Hebrew University economist affiliated with the liberal Israel Democracy Institute. "The fact is that Israel is a very small country, with a relatively small population, we can't afford to have so many people coming from Africa to Israel."

Across Israel, more than 40,000 Africans bear identity cards that designate them as under "Conditional Release" – a form of house arrest that prohibits the designee from working. The designation frees the government from housing and feeding the illegal migrants while stopping short of granting them refugee or asylum-seeker status.

Tesfamariam Tekeste, Eritrea's ambassador to Israel, calls the "conditional" set-up a travesty. The ban against working exposes Eritrean laborers to exploitation by unscrupulous employers, while poverty forces Africans to sleep in parks or rent from slumlords, he says.

All the same, the ambassador says his government would vigorously protest a move by Israel to designate Eritreans as refugees. "These are economic migrants, not political migrants," he says. "They are not persecuted in Eritrea."

Today, the emergence of African districts in cities including Eilat, Ashdod and Tel Aviv is alarming to many. "Look at Tel Aviv," says Ya'akov Katz, of the religious National Union party, who complains that the city is already experiencing a variant of "white flight" from some districts. Within five years, he warns, "Tel Aviv is going to be an African city."

Mr. Katz approves of the new legislation, which envisions more money to complete a security fence along Israel's border with Sinai, and new funds to complete a detention city where African "infiltrators" can be held for up to three years without formal charges or trial. Detainees may be brought for administrative hearing in front of a judge who determines the term of detention. Critics call it a "concentration camp."

Illegal immigrants deemed to be from "enemy" states, like Sudan, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel, could be held indefinitely.

Liberal politicians including Yael Dayan, chairman of Tel Aviv's city council, say establishing a detention city for Africans would be morally wrong. It would also, she said, be a "budget buster."

The daughter of one of Israel's most renowned military heroes, Ms. Dayan saves her sharpest jabs for another proposal being contemplated for "infiltrators," granting soldiers permission to open fire on African refugees crossing into Israel, what proponents of the measure call "hot arrest."

"If we do that, it will be the end of us," she says.

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