Israeli politicians should ratchet down their rhetoric on the subject of the country’s burgeoning population of migrants from Africa, Canadian jurist and lawmaker Irwin Cotler told a Knesset panel in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

During a recent wave of anti-migrant sentiment sparked by several instances of violent crime involving African asylum-seekers, hard-line Israeli politicians used loaded language to describe the migrants, nearly 70,000 of whom are now thought to be in the country. One lawmaker, Miri Regev, termed them a “cancer,” and the interior minister, Eli Yishai, said they carried diseases and were involved in crime. Migrants were assaulted in Tel Aviv as calls for their deportation grew more vocal.

Cotler, a former Canadian justice minister and a longtime supporter of Israel, told a meeting of the Knesset’s Immigration and Absorption Committee that such statements drew critical media attention abroad and helped emphasize Israel’s lack of a coherent policy on the migrants.

“The notion of them as criminals or bearers of disease – these are the things that can end up being prejudicial speech, and can incite incidents like those we saw in Tel Aviv,” Cotler said.

“Life and death are in the power of the tongue,” Cotler said, quoting a Hebrew proverb.

He criticized the use of the word “infiltrators,” which Israeli officials have taken to using to describe the migrants, saying the term “prejudices the discourse” by suggesting none of them have the right to stay.

Israel is required under international law to have a mechanism to recognize refugees and grant asylum, but does not, instead granting the new arrivals temporary permission to stay but not to work. Migrants from Eritrea and Sudan, who make up the bulk of the newcomers, are granted a group exemption from deportation because their countries are considered particularly dangerous, but only a small handful of asylum-seekers have ever been granted refugee status in Israel.

This “legal limbo” falls short of Israel’s international obligations, Cotler said, and makes it difficult for Israel to request assistance from other countries in absorbing the migrants.

As Canada’s justice minister from 2003 to 2006, Cotler passed a national anti-racism initiative, and has been active in global human rights causes.

MK Einat Wilf of the Independence faction, who hosted the committee meeting, echoed Cotler’s criticism of the language used by some Israeli politicians.

“I call on my colleagues, members of Knesset and elected officials, not to use language that is hate speech and quickly crosses the border to incitement. These statements don’t help solve the problem. They are dangerous and have no place in any country, and certainly not in Israel,” she said.