From building a new border fence to setting up the world’s largest detention facility for asylum seekers, Israel’s government has tried a number of different strategies designed to keep African migrants out.
African migrants being held in Israel’s Saharonim detention facility.
With the number of African migrants living in Israel currently around 60,000, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently instructed the Defense Ministry to erect tent cities to hold African migrants.
Formulated in the past as a contingency plan for an Israeli civilian population fleeing population centers during wartime, the original plan called for setting up temporary tent cities in southern Israel’s Arava region, near Eilat.
The location and holding capacity of the new tent cities are unknown.
Israel has tried out a number of different strategies designed to curb the phenomenon of illegal infiltration by African migrants since 2007, when the number of African migrants arriving in Israel spiked (to 5,000, as compared to 1,000 in 2006).
In that year, the Saharonim facility, a detention center for African migrants entering Israel through its border with Egypt, was opened. Migrants arriving at the facility went through a process of registration and identification, and given a medical exam.
If they could not be deported – under international law, people fleeing from certain African countries, including Sudan and Eritrea, cannot be sent back to their homelands – they were eventually released and given a one-way ticket to Tel Aviv.
When they could not be identified, the migrants could end up finding themselves in custody for many months or even years. The facility, which can hold up to 2,000 people, is currently being expanded to make space for 5,400 persons.
Their release to central Israel created large concentrations of African migrants in central cities, especially in Tel Aviv, where Africans began to find places to live in shelters and in small apartments.
In February of 2008, following pressure from the Tel Aviv municipality, the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority instituted the “Gadera-Hadera policy,” which prohibited the migrants from living in the center of the country.
Under the policy, migrants and foreign workers who lacked work visas were allowed to live only north of the town of Hadera or south of Gadera. The move drew significant criticism for creating social and economic problems in cities on Israel’s periphery and in July of 2009, under massive pressure from the public, Interior Minister Eli Yishai cancelled the policy.
In November 2010, the state took a different tack. With no forewarning, migrants’ permission to work in Israel was revoked. A clause stating that “this temporary license does not constitute a work permit” began to be added to migrants’ residence papers.
The clause, however, has not been enforced, and no date for its enforcement has been set. In response to a legal petition by aid organizations, the state committed to notifying the High Court and the organizations before it decides to begin enforcing the ban against employing migrants.
Despite the lack of enforcement in practice, the clause has still managed to scare employers out of employing migrants, with many losing their jobs. This has led to a significant decline in their situation, and in some cases has led to a desire among the migrants to leave Israel.
In January of 2010, the state opened up a new front in its war against illegal migration when the government decided to build a fence along its border with Egypt. Eight months later, the Defense Ministry began to implement the decision.
The government is pinning great hopes on the fence, which will be 230 km long and is estimated to cost some NIS 1.3 billion.
Still, even the fence may not constitute an absolute barrier to potential migrants. In early May, Egyptian smugglers managed to cut a hole in the fence, but were detected and eventually caught by the IDF.
With the flow of illegal migrant constantly rising, in December of 2010 Netanyahu announced a new comprehensive plan for the war against infiltrators. The plan contained a number of previous cabinet decisions, including speeding up construction of the fence, construction of a new detention facility and increasing fines on employers (although the fines would still not be enforced).
The detention facility is slated to be built within Ketziot Prison, near the border with Egypt, and will hold some 11,000 migrants.
The fear of imprisonment has already led hundreds of South Sudanese to return to their country, which gained independence from Sudan in July of 2011. Under the government’s “voluntary departure” program, those returning home were given a grant of $500 and put on flights organized by the state in cooperation with a Christian organization.
In January of 2012, the state took another far-reaching step by amending the Prevention of Infiltration Law, whose official goal is to deter asylum seekers from entering Israel. According to the new amendment, whichwent into effect earlier this week, migrants entering Israel can be imprisoned for up to three years, in contrast to the 60-day period which was previously allowed under the law.
The law also allows the state to bring criminal charges against anyone who aids or provides shelter to migrants, with penalties of up to five years imprisonment.