Now What?

09.19.13

Why the Israeli Supreme Court Ruling on African Migrants Isn't Enough

Following the bold Israeli Supreme Court ruling on Monday striking down an Israeli law allowing for the detention of African migrants for three years without trial, the situation is tense. Right wing Members of Knesset voiced adamant opposition to the ruling and large protests erupted in southern Tel Aviv to show displeasure. On the other hand, human rights organizations and left-wing MKs have hailed the Court’s decision as groundbreaking. Over 2,000 Africans will be released from Israeli jails during the next 90 days according to the ruling and another approximately 58,000 migrants are living elsewhere in Israel. Therefore, the Interior Ministry needs to quickly adopt a new policy that allows a reasonable path for refugees to attain asylum status and the rights to work legally in Israel.

In response to the Court’s decision, prominent Likud MK Miri Regev has proposed a bill within the next 90 days that would keep African migrants in Israeli jails without trial for one year instead of three. This law comes from Regev who previously called Sudanese migrants “a cancer in our body.” Furthermore, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clarified that he “was determined to continue to lead government operations for dealing with the infiltrators.”

Unfortunately, Regev and Netanyahu have not learned the lessons from the Court’s ruling saying that holding African migrants in jails for such a long period of time without a trial “blatantly injures the human dignity and liberty (of the African migrants).” Instead, Likud MKs wish to continue detaining the African migrants for as long as possible without providing a comprehensive solution to the problem.

In fairness, Israel has every right to protect its borders from illegal immigrants, just like every other sovereign nation. In fact, Netanyahu recently ordered the building of a massive wall on the Egyptian-Israeli border to reduce the amount of illegal immigrants entering into Israel. Netanyahu even recently bragged that because of the wall’s construction, not a single African migrant entered Israel during the previous month. Therefore, Israelis could hardly argue that it is critical to enact the cruel detention law to prevent a mass influx of African immigrants who would flood Israel’s social services and disrupt Israel’s Jewish character.

Additionally, while some lawmakers contend that this immigration into Israel has depleted Israel’s resources because the African migrants bring little skill to the 21st century economy, they forget that Israel has brought in a far larger number of African immigrants in previous years—according to one estimate, 91,000 Ethiopian Jews—and Israel was able to devote far more money to integrating them into society and assisting them to become productive citizens.

Supreme Court Justice Esther Hayut exclaimed, “The State of Israel remains the only Western democracy without an immigration policy.” This leads to “the abuse of foreigners, which disgraces us as a people and a state.”

Asylum acceptance for refugees in Israel is almost impossible. Worldwide Eritreans have an 80 percent asylum acceptance rate due to the horrible conditions in their country; yet, Israel has refused to offer refugee status to even one of the 36,000 Eritreans in the country. The Israeli Ministry of Interior must immediately reform its policies to allow refugees the opportunity to receive a fair asylum hearing according to United Nations Conventions that Israel itself signed. Currently, once these migrants—or “infiltrators,” according to the derogatory language used by the Prime Minister—enter the country, they are not allowed to work legally or send money home to their families in Africa. This policy only exacerbates the problem of poverty and crime. Instead, Israel should immediately allow all those who have been granted refugee status permanent residency and the right to work. It is important to remember that Human Rights Watch has reported that these migrants have escaped torture and rape in Egypt before arriving to Israel. Israel has the right to decide which individuals can enter their country, but once they have been admitted then Israel has the obligation to treat them—especially given their troubled backgrounds—in a humane fashion.

The Supreme Court’s ruling only highlighted the urgent need for a dramatic change in Israel’s immigration and refugee policy, which is almost non-existent. Unfortunately, signs point to the issue not being economic. At a 2012 rally, protestors shouted “Blacks out” while destroying African shops. Influential Israeli columnist Ben Caspit penned a controversial 2012 op-ed in The Jerusalem Post, using inflammatory language like “Between 65,000-80,000 have completely taken Tel Aviv and have founded the first African Republic of Zion” and derogatory accusations like “the Africans begin drinking and they do not know how to hold their liquor.” Regrettably, this crisis may be due to racist tendencies within some segments of Israeli society. As protestors and irate MKs demonstrate, this cannot change with one Supreme Court ruling.