Monday, December 12, 2011
The Israeli government has announced plans to spend $160 million on efforts to stem the growing number of Africans who enter the country illegally, seeking jobs and political asylum
The money will go toward work on an Egyptian border fence that is already under construction, an expansion of detention centers and increased policing of companies that hire illegal immigrant workers. “If need be, we will close businesses so that the enterprise known as the State of Israel does not close,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after a cabinet meeting that focused on the issue. Over the past six years, about 50,000 Africans, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, have trekked across the Sinai into Israel, some of them working in hotels and on construction sites, others living in rundown urban neighborhoods, unable to find work and relying on refugee agencies. All well-off countries face the challenge of how to handle poor foreign migrants and how much credence to give their accounts of political persecution. But the situation in Israel is complicated by Jewish history and has led to a national debate. On the one hand, this is a small country that wishes to maintain a strong Jewish majority. On the other, the Jews’ past of eviction and persecution makes some here argue that Israel should have special sensitivity for those fleeing prejudice and conflict. Netanyahu said that the overwhelming number of Africans who slip into Israel are not political refugees, but are looking to improve their economic status. He said that they pose difficulties for the people they settle among. Poorer Israelis, in particular, resent the Africans’ arrival and compete with them for jobs. Netanyahu plans to visit several African countries early in 2012 and said that he would raise the issue of repatriating the refugees. The influx of Africans began in 2005 after the Egyptian police attacked Sudanese refugees who were camped out in Cairo and demanded asylum. More than 20 people were killed, and word spread that Israel would provide them a better welcome and more job opportunities. The Israeli government hopes that the fence being built along the Egyptian border will keep out most infiltrators. The demands for a fence have grown in the past year with the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and the increase in tensions with Cairo that followed his ouster. Three months ago, demonstrators in Cairo ransacked part of the Israeli Embassy, leading the Israeli government to airlift its diplomatic personnel from Egypt. In August 2011, infiltrators from the Sinai killed eight Israelis near the popular Red Sea resort of Eilat; in fighting afterward, Israeli troops killed five Egyptian security personnel.