Forgetting its roots: Israel and asylum seekers

Some migrants in Israel and their employers are reeling from the effects of a new measure targeting Africans who entered the country illegally. Under the so-called deposit law, an Anti-Infiltration Law amendment that took effect May 1, African asylum seekers must deposit 20 percent of their wages into a fund they can access only upon leaving the country. In addition, their employers are required to deposit 16 percent of the asylum seekers’ pension allowances into the same fund.

Founded as a haven for Jews fleeing persecution, Israel has been far less welcoming to non-Jewish Africans seeking asylum. The country has approved fewer than 1 percent of all asylum applications since signing the 1951 UN Refugee Convention in 1954. Starting in the mid-2000s, large numbers of Eritrean and Sudanese migrants began entering Israel via Egypt, fleeing authoritarian regimes at home. As the numbers swelled, Israeli authorities became overwhelmed, and the government found it difficult to accommodate the new arrivals. Many were held in a detention center in the Israeli desert, and were subsequently given temporary visas and allowed to work.

The new law is just the latest development in Israel’s ongoing efforts to push out African asylum seekers, whom it considers “infiltrators.” By 2013, with tensions running high between migrants and Israelis, the country began implementing policies to stop African inflows and make life difficult for the roughly 55,000 already there. It completed a wall along its border with Egypt, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—whose supporters have referred to the migrants as “a cancer”—credits for blocking 99 percent of would-be African arrivals. Next, Israel began pressuring asylum seekers to relocate to a third country, giving them $3,500 in cash upon departure and promising them asylum once they arrive in either Rwanda or Uganda. Several thousand signed up, only to be led by smugglers on a shadowy journey through African borderlands—with no safety or legal status in sight.

The lack of welcome may be working: More than 3,200 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers left the country in 2016. The deposit law is likely to make life even more difficult for the tens of thousands of Africans still in Israel, who largely fill service jobs in restaurants and hotels. Businesses complain their labor costs will rise as a result of the provision, and aid groups say it has caused an uptick in asylum seekers being fired. With their limited access to public health care services contingent upon employment, those who lose their jobs can find themselves in very difficult straits.

The government maintains its actions are meant to benefit migrants, and that it is acting within the framework of international law. Meanwhile, lawyers and human-rights organizations are challenging the deposit law and relocation policy in court. For now, it appears the Africans will remain unwelcome in their would-be home.

From the Migration Policy Institute.

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