How Did Israel Become So Hostile to African Migrants

Israeli protesters
Israeli protesters chant anti-African slogans

“No human being is illegal. That is a contradiction in terms. Human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful, they can be fat or skinny, they can be right or wrong, but illegal? How can a human being be illegal?”

–Ellie Wiesel, writer, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor.

Whilst in Tel Aviv this summer my handbag was stolen. I remember all too well the gut-wrenching feeling of loss. The crime was committed by an African migrant. With no job, no home, no money, no food, confronted with absolute poverty he had little choice but to resort to crime.

13,683 people entered Israel illegally in 2010, 62% were Eritreans and 33% were Sudanese. African Refugee Development Centre (ARDC) estimates that there are 60,000 African migrants in Israel with more than 90% arriving before 2007. Despite being a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the Israeli government has not adopted asylum legislation and the asylum policies and procedures are unclear and arbitrary, according to the ARDC.

The Israeli government does not deport illegal migrants to their home countries where they would most likely be tortured and killed, nor does it grant them refugee status. Instead, migrants are left in a state of uncertainty, as they unable to work legally and do not have recourse to public funds.

Shortly after the theft, the police arrived at the scene. An officer turned to me and said, “Now do you see why we don’t want them?” The most problematic words the officer used were “we” and “them.” The officer’s statement represents a hierarchical dualism in which he sees himself as superior, and African migrants as inferior. The officer’s sweeping comment reaffirms that Israel has achieved its mission of disempowering and dehumanizing African migrants by engaging in processes of “othering”.

The government has used “othering” and the scapegoating of African migrants as a way of defining and securing the identity of Israel as a Jewish state. Earlier this year in May 2012, the Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, publicly said “illegal infiltrators [were] flooding the country” and “this phenomenon is very grave and threatens the social fabric of society, our national security and our national identity”.

Israeli attacking Africans
African migrants attacked by Jewish mob

Such inflammatory statements from the leader of the country have created wide spread moral panic across Israel, with Israelis demonstrating against a powerless and illegal group of people. On 23 May 2012, around 1,000 demonstrators took to the streets and waved signs stating: “infiltrators, get out of our homes” and “our streets are no longer safe for our children.” To legitimize the publics’ outrange, Miri Regev, a member of the Israeli Likud MK political party said during the protests “the Sudanese are a cancer in our body”. Might Miri Regev’s words have helped stir the mob of Israelis that went on to physically attack Africans in South Tel Aviv?

By whipping the public into a frenzy, the government concentrated the public’s attention on a perceived external threat – African migrants. In doing so they encouraged the nation to unite against a common enemy. As a result the draconian measures proposed by the government to eradicate African migrants were embraced by the nation.

One measure implemented by the government is the construction of a fence along the Egypt-Israel border to prevent migrants from entering Israel. Construction began in 2010 and finished this month. The fence runs for 165 miles and cost of 1.5 billion shekels (approximately 178 million pounds). In constructing another fence, the Israeli government has created a physical and symbolic division between ‘us and them’. Israel is slowly becoming a nation surrounded by fences and isolated from neighboring countries.

A second measure proposed by the government, is the construction of the world’s largest detention centre (concentration camp)in the Negev desert to hold up to 11,000 African migrants. Despite the economically fragile state of the Israeli economy, the government has pledged to spend £58 million on the centre. As outlined in a recent report, the centre will accommodate migrants, including women and children for up to three years before they are deported to their country of origin; those from “enemy” states, such as Sudan, who cannot be repatriated, could be detained indefinitely.

A further measure proposed by the  Israeli government is the deportation of thousands of migrants back to their home countries, despite concerns over the potential violation of human rights. Interior Minister Eli Yishai announced in late August that all Sudanese migrants have until mid-October to leave Israel, after which they will be arrested and detained. The government offered financial incentives to African migrants who left voluntarily. Meanwhile others were detained by police and removed by force. During the flux of deportation, the Interior Minister Eli Yishai affirmed the government’s draconian policy and said “we cannot allow ourselves to flood the country with infiltrators and migrants.”

On 3 October African migrants and Israeli human rights groups led by the Association for Civil Rights, petitioned a Jerusalem District Court to nullify Yishai’s decision to detain migrants in a detention centre and to deport them. Following their petition, Judge Nava Ben-Or granted an interim injunction on 11 October to prohibit Yishai from continuing with his barbaric plans until the court makes a final decision. Judge Nava Ben-Or gave the Interior Ministry two weeks to respond.

It seems to me there is a danger that the denigration of African migrants will become the basis for nation-affirmation. The process of othering is fragile as it must continually be fed by new “evidence” of the inferiority of the other – thus African migrants are at risk of being constantly degraded. It is alarming even to consider what might happen next.

The government fail to note that after spending a number of years in Israel, many migrants speak Hebrew, are employed; and their children, the next generation, attend schools along with Israeli nationals. They are (unofficially) part of the nation. Despite their attempts to integrate, Israel only recognised six refugees last year. Since Israel signed the Refugee Convention, only 170 people have been granted refugee status by Israel.

It might not be a viable option for Israel, a small economically fragile nation, to sustain such large numbers of dependents, but Israel must facilitate policy change. ASSAF’s, aid organization for refugees and asylum seekers in Israel, long-term goal is to facilitate the formal recognition and implementation of refugee rights and a fair asylum process. As a signatory of the Refugee Convention Israel must at least comply with its convention obligations.

It is surprising that a nation, founded as a refuge for survivors of the Holocaust, now persecutes others who’ve experienced great suffering, struggle and sacrifice, on the basis of their religion, ethnicity and nationality. Surely Israel has a responsibility to help those most in need?


By; Charlotte Proudman