Amid mounting criticism from international organizations and protests by African migrants outside several Tel Aviv embassies, Israeli officials on Monday night tried to reframe the debate over the fate of the 50,000-60,000 migrants here by reiterating the official government position in a more conciliatory manner while emphasizing the unique challenges that Israel faces.
“The situation in Israel is much more complex than that of other developed countries. Israel is the only developed country with a land border with Africa, which makes it comparatively more accessible for those who wish to enter,” read an English-language statement from the Foreign Ministry.
The statement stressed that Jerusalem — which insists that few of the migrants are genuine refugees and that the majority came for work and must leave the country — was acting in accordance with international law, and tacitly rejected the UN Refugee Agency’s call on Sunday for Israel to reform its policies toward the African asylum seekers. The UN statement had said that, with its policy of detentions and expulsion, Israel treated the migrants as criminals.
Earlier Monday, in a second straight day of migrant protests, up to 10,000 Sudanese and Eritrean migrants demonstrated outside the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, flooding the boardwalk outside the building, while countless others gathered at the British and French embassies. Throngs of asylum seekers held aloft signs and Eritrean and US flags as they chanted “Freedom” and “No more prison.”
In addition, 150 migrants held in the Saharonim detention center in the Negev launched a hunger strike; as of Monday evening, they had decline five successive meals. If the migrants decline a sixth meal, their protest will be officially recognized by security forces as an organized hunger strike.
On Sunday, 30,000 migrants participated in a march that began in Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park and ended with a demonstration in Rabin Square. The migrants launched a three-day strike Sunday and have not shown up to their jobs, primarily in janitorial and cleaning positions, leaving restaurant owners and hotel managers reeling.
Since the protests began on Sunday, Israeli officials have not wavered on the governmental policies, but some have softened their official description from the more contentious term, “infiltrators,” to “migrants.”
In an interview with Channel 2 Monday evening, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar echoed the Foreign Ministry’s position, highlighting what he said was the danger of granting blanket approval of immigration from Africa and the effectiveness of deportation efforts in recent months.
He said there were “tens of millions” of would-be economic migrants in Africa ‘looking to get out” and that Israel was on the “front line” of the struggle. “The state cannot display weakness,” Sa’ar said. “In Africa, there are tens of millions of people seeking asylum in Western countries. Since we are the only country with a land border with Africa, the potential for entry is immense.
“The government has a clear policy — to minimize the scope of infiltrators — that’s why we established the holding facilities. Our goal is to encourage them to leave; we are starting to see results and we must continue to show determination.” Some 2,600 migrants left “voluntarily” in 2013, encouraged by payments of $3,500 each; Sa’ar said the rate was increasing, and had reached an annualized 5,000.
Even if they were genuine refugees, asked Sa’ar, “why do they have to be in Tel Aviv? And why do we have to provide them with jobs.” He then stressed, again, that Israel does not believe most of those seeking asylum are genuine refugees.
The UNHCR office in Israel on Monday insisted, by contrast, that most of the migrants should indeed be eligible for refugee status.
African migrants are protesting Israel’s policies, which make it difficult to receive official asylum-seeker status, and have seen tens of thousands held in detention facilities in the Negev for extended periods of time.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the opening of a Likud-Beytenu faction meeting on Monday, emphatically declared that the “infiltrators” would not be granted refugee status. He said that “demonstrations and strikes will make no difference,” and went on: “I would like to clarify that these are not refugees, whom we handle according to international treaties, but rather infiltrators in search of work who are illegal, and we will fully bring them to justice.” Israel was “determined to remove” those who crossed illegally into the country before it sealed off its border with Egypt.
However, Monday’s statement from the Foreign Ministry appeared to mitigate the starkness of Netanyahu’s assertion.
“The Population and Immigration Authority, through its RSD (Refugee Status Determination) unit, has been examining hundreds of demands for asylum, in coordination with the UNHCR, which has provided training for the RSD personnel,” the statement read. “All applications are given thorough treatment, with priority given to those submitted by migrants staying in the Saharonim and Holot facilities. The examination is carried out in accordance with Israel’s international legal obligations, based on the UN Refugee Convention (1951).”