Text size

An estimated 50,000 African refugees, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, have snuck into Israel through Sinai over the past five years. They tend to concentrate in areas such as south Tel Aviv, taking jobs away from the poorest of Israelis, and increasing public disorder. Their arrival has changed the complexion of entire neighborhoods and given locals the feeling they have been invaded, leading Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai to demand that the prime minister save his city.

The problem is not unique to Israel - waves of impoverished illegals challenge many Western countries - but Israel's size and Jewish character make it a special case.

As Jews, many of us identify with the suffering of refugees fleeing persecution, and even with those who are primarily seeking economic opportunity. When the gates of America or Palestine were open, Jews flooded through, struggled and thrived - or at least, survived. When the gates were locked, we were killed. But we also know that Israel is too small to absorb the suffering masses of another continent.

Unfortunately, intractable dilemmas like this bring out the worst in governments, and Prime Minister Netanyahu's $165-million deterrent policy, scheduled for Knesset ratification next week, is based on criminalizing desperate and largely helpless people.

Rights organizations claim the vast majority of African refugees are legitimate asylum seekers, escaping political persecution, war or genocide. But Israel grants refugee status to almost nobody and does not even examine the cases of Sudanese and Eritreans. The government maintains that most African illegal immigrants are not political refugees, but rather migrant workers seeking to improve their economic prospects. Because this argument lacks sufficient emotional charge, the government frames the discourse in terms of threats, playing off the public's fears.

Nomenclature matters, and labeling the refugees as illegal work infiltrators has threatening associations, particularly since the new policy is based on legislation to counter the infiltration into Israel of Arab terrorists intent on murder, from hostile neighboring countries.

The funding approved by the government last week is intended to finance a 240-kilometer fence along Israel's Sinai border with Egypt. But it will also go to building the largest detention facility for illegal immigrants in the world, run by Israel's Prison Service, and increase maximum detention time from 60 days to three years. If it is determined that detainees - and this includes children - are from an area considered hostile to Israel, such as parts of Sudan where Al-Qaida is active, they will never be eligible for release, in which case we might as well just call it a prison.

Employers of illegal immigrants will be subject to fines up to NIS 75,000 and face closure of their business. In fact, Israelis helping illegal immigrants in any way could face imprisonment for up to five years. This provision was seen as so extreme that the Knesset Interior Committee asked to limit liability only to citizens who assist illegals caught engaging in criminal or terrorist activity.

The Jewish public is much more conflicted than the government. In the spirit that once moved us to welcome several hundred Vietnamese boat people, health professionals and other volunteers work alongside organizations like the Hotline for Migrant Workers and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel to help the refugees. Tel Aviv's Bialik Rogozin School, the subject of last year's Oscar winner for best documentary, provides children of foreign workers and illegal refugees with top-flight education.

While a fence may slow things down, and we have every right to police our borders, the other draconian measures will have questionable deterrent value. According to documentation, refugees have been robbed, tortured, raped, held captive to extort ransoms of up to $30,000 per person from family members, trafficked as labor or sex slaves, and in some cases, had their organs harvested for sale - all by the smugglers they pay to lead them through Sinai. If they continue to arrive despite these horrors, is long-term detention likely to scare them off?

There are no great options and probably no way to completely stop the immigration. History suggests that significant numbers of refugees go home when conditions allow, but this can take years. Many refugees will likely be here for an extended period, and we ought to figure out how to absorb them for the time being.

According to the most recent UN statistics available, in 2009 almost 84 percent of Eritrean and close to 64 percent of Sudanese asylum seekers worldwide were accorded refugee status. These figures may be what has scared our government off from even considering granting these people official refugee status, but they can hardly justify such an approach. In 2010 only six out of 3,366 applications for asylum were approved - far less than 1 percent. We should establish reasonable standards to determine refugee status, and begin checking the Sudanese and Eritrean illegal immigrants.

First, instead of the government's plan, we have to decriminalize the debate, since almost no one involved is a criminal, ratchet down the incitement, and take the prisons authority out of the picture. We should launch a public discourse about our moral obligations regarding refugees and the limits of our capacity, as a small, and mostly Jewish, state.

Don Futterman is the program director for Israel of the Moriah Fund, a private American foundation which seeks to strengthen Israel's civil society, and is one third of the "Promised Podcast" team.