Tuesday, May 19, 2015
Israel continues to toughen its stance toward refugees, telling unwanted Africans that they must leave the Jewish state now or face an indefinite stay in prison
Israeli authorities have sent letters to the first of 45,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees, informing them that they have 30 days to accept Israel’s offer of $3,500 in cash and a one-way ticket home or to an unnamed third country in Africa, or face incarceration at Saharonim prison. Israeli leaders have proclaimed that their tough approach — building a fence along the country’s border, denying work permits for illegal migrants, forcing them into a detention center in the desert — may ultimately save lives by dissuading migrants from attempting a perilous journey. Critics of the Israeli policy counter that a country built by refugees should be more accepting of those fleeing war, poverty and oppression. The new measures to press the Africans to leave Israel come at a time of heightened fear among the refugees, who were stunned recently by a widely circulated video showing three Eritreans who left Israel killed by Islamic State militants in Libya. Migrants in Israel are being kept at the Holot detention facility, a compound of single-story cement-block dormitories housing 2,000 Africans, surrounded by a fence spooled with razor wire in the Negev desert. Before Israel began cracking down on African migrants a few years ago, the Africans were highly visible in bustling cities, working in kitchens and doing menial labor. There are still neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv filled with Africans. Many Israelis complained they were being “invaded.” Israel is a nation built by Jewish refugees, and those with Jewish ancestry are encouraged, even courted, to move here and provided wide-ranging assistance. A million Russian speakers came in the 1990s, and Jews from Ethiopia continue to arrive each month. But fearful that a wave of impoverished Africans, mostly Muslims from Sudan and Christians from Eritrea, would overwhelm the Jewish nature of the state, Israel spent more than $350 million to build a 140-mile fence along its entire border with Egypt. Undocumented migrants to Israel are called “infiltrators” by the Israeli government. The steel barrier, completed in 2013, stopped illegal entry cold: More than 10,000 Africans arrived in 2012; today almost no one attempts the trip. More than 300,000 Eritreans have been offered asylum around the world; more than 84% are recognized as refugees or offered complimentary protection in other host countries, according to the United Nations. In Israel, the recognition rate is less than 1% for the past six years. Only four Eritreans and no Sudanese have been accepted for asylum. Eritrean activists in Israel say that they are not welcomed at all, but find their documents seized upon arrival, are shaken down for bribes and are generally shunned.