Touring South Tel Aviv Tuesday, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar said that the issue of African migrants is one of the most vexing problems facing Israel, and that the government would keep working to deport illegal migrants to their nations of origin or to third countries.
Billed as his first working tour in his new post, Sa’ar walked around Neve Sha’anan, a low-income and middle-class neighborhood in south Tel Aviv that’s become an epicenter for many of the tens of thousands of African migrants in Israel, to get a firsthand glimpse of the area.
“This is one of the most difficult, sensitive and charged issues Israel has had to deal with,” Sa’ar noted.
One of the main controversies surrounding the migrants is that the government permitted them entry but doesn’t grant them work visas, creating a situation that fosters crime and illegal activity. Residents have become increasingly vocal about their frustration with what they say is the government’s inaction on the issue.
“There’s no life here anymore. Everyone here lives in fear,” one resident said, while others complained that their businesses have greatly suffered in recent years.
“If they are refugees, give them what they deserve. If they’re infiltrators, then deport them,” a resident said as the minister toured.
Orit Marom, head of advocacy at the refugee aid organization ASSAF, told Haaretz that she hopes Sa’ar understands that the government’s policy “affects not only the asylum-seekers but also the marginalized populations in Israeli society, who are carrying the burden on their backs.”
Mai Golan, a far right-wing activist who lives in the neighborhood, stopped Sa’ar and broke into a sob. “Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day, but you must understand that we, the people who live here, live in a ghetto here,” he said, according to Ynet.
“No one should live under these conditions,” Sa’ar conceded at the end of his tour. He said he intends to change the situation, but that it wouldn’t happen overnight.
“The government’s policy is to return the infiltrators to where they came from or to other countries…. This should be done according to the law and the values of the state,” Sa’ar said. “These are human beings.”
Human rights groups contend Israel isn’t doing enough for the asylum-seekers, including not giving them the right to work, and that it lags behind much of the West in handling cases of migrants seeking asylum. The government, however, claims that many of the migrants aren’t actually refugees but individuals seeking better economic opportunities.
One migrant from Sudan claimed that wasn’t the case. “We come from a place we can’t go back to,” he said, citing genocide and persecution in his home country, and the danger he’d face if he returned. “We seek protection.”
“We are refugees, not infiltrators!” advocacy groups chanted together with the asylum-seekers as Sa’ar walked by.
The stream of migrants into Israel, which saw tens of thousands enter the country, has slowed to a near-halt since Israel accelerated construction of a much-upgraded fence along the Egyptian border last year.