Any Israeli who has spent time in the southern reaches of Tel Aviv can't help but feel he's left his own country. The streets are thronged with African refugees from Eritrea and Sudan.
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They are, of course, easily distinguishable by their skin color. They are poor and many seem to be going about aimlessly, arousing suspicions that they must be up to no good. Add to that the Sudanese are Muslims from an enemy country. Their seemingly huge numbers add to the sense of threat.
In other words, the average Israeli feels how an American visiting New York Lower East Side and a Londoner passing through Whitechapel a century ago looked on our grandparents and great grandparents. Yes, they dressed differently, they were poor and spoke a different language, but that was no reason to assume the worst of them. They were kind, wonderful people, who were escaping an oppressive regime and wanted to work, raise families and make a life for themselves.
The question of what Israel should do about the refugees hasn't been made easier by our political leaders who, rather than offering moral leadership in the mold of David Ben-Gurion, cater to people's basest fears. Knesset member Miri Regev (Likud) called the Sudanese "a cancer in our body" and no less than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that they threaten the social fabric of society, our national security, our national identity and our existence as a Jewish and democratic state.
Africans only began entering the country in large numbers eight years ago. The influx grew to an unsustainable pace back in 2010, 2001 and 2012, reaching as many as 17,000 a year. The construction of a fence along the border with Egypt in 2012 and 2013 reduced the flood to a trickle: Only 117 entered in all of 2013 and, in the first half of this year, a mere 19.
In the meantime, some 4,800 refugees, mostly from Sudan, have been coaxed into leaving. Today, the Population and Immigration Authority estimates there are just over 48,000 so-called infiltrators in Israel, or 0.6% of the total population in Israel. If you're in South Tel Aviv, their numbers seem much larger only because 60% of the African have made their home there.
A confused mass of passivity and ill will
Israel's policy has amounted to a confused mass of passivity, red tape and ill will – most manifestly characterized by then Interior Minister's Eli Yishai's infamous call to "make their lives miserable" – though not as malevolent as a report issued by Human Rights Watch this week makes it sound.
The fact is Israel has no real policy at all. After all, who but a Zionist idealist or a Jew with no other choice would want to come here at all? So even though Israel signed 1951 Refugee Convention, there was no mechanism for actually absorbing refugees.
At its best, Israel is allowing the great majority of the refugees to live and work unofficially, although their legal status remains dicey. The Tel Aviv municipality provides some social services and other assistance. At its worst, some 9,000 have been put into a so-called residency center, where they are technically free to go during the day – so long as they check in three times daily. The catch is the Holot center is in the middle of the desert , 70 kilometers from Be'er Sheva, the nearest city.
Other refugees have left for – because they were given no choice, says HRW. Almost none of their applications for asylum have been accepted by Israel on the grounds that they have come to Israel looking for work, not to escape violence or persecution.
168 Israelis per African refugee
No one, least of all Israel, can make purely ethical decisions divorced from the realities.
The ethical decision, certainly as enshrined in 1951 Refugee Convention, would be to let everyone escaping the ravages of war or oppressive regimes enter the country and be granted asylum. But, there are already only 168 Israelis for every African refugee. In France and Britain, the ratio is more like 1:300 and in the Netherlands 1:200.
And there are still lots of Eritreans and Sudanese who want to escape, but we're not capable of absorbing proportionally more than Europe or America, which have far more resources than we have and aren't facing the same demographic or security issues.
But with the refugees who are here now, Israel has a chance to do the right thing and make an economically sound decision.
As the HRW report urges, Israel should close the Holot center, which is a ridiculous waste of money. It cost some 320 million shekels ($88.3 million) to build and another 100 million to operate annually, with some 25,000 shekels a year spent on each inmate's personal needs.
We taxpayers are paying the refugees to sit around and do nothing. Israel should also stop transferring Africans to other countries, grant the refugees here asylum claims as quickly as possible and in the meantime issue them renewable 12-month temporary status with work authorization.
In short, they may be refugees, but we should welcome them as guest workers.
Israel certainly has the need for them: There are far more legal (about 73,000) and illegal (an estimated 13,600) guest workers in the country than there are African refugees doing jobs that Israelis refuse to do, mainly in agriculture, construction and home help.
Not do they threaten anyone's livelihood. Unlike Europe or America, our unemployment rate is reasonably low and the economy has been very successful at generating jobs over the last decade.
In the future, Israel faces a labor shortage as the population ages. Of course, it would be better to lure engineers and doctors to the country as immigrants, but even low-skill refugees are a help, clearing the way for Israelis to move up the income and skills ladder.
By legalizing their status we would be enabling the refugees to compete fairly in the job market instead of being a source of underpaid, exploited labor , as they are now, thereby depressing wages for the rest at the bottom of the job ladder. The refugees should be treated as a welcome addition to the workforce, not a demographic threat.
Might treating them well convince the refugees to stay forever?
There's no reason to think so. It's unlikely that war-torn, impoverished Sudan is going to become free and prosperous any time soon, but Eritrea, where three-quarters of the refuges come from, holds out more promise of reaching the point where conditions there becomes tolerable again.
In any event, it is hard to see most Africans ever making a life in Israel, whether life in their home countries gets appreciably better or not. Three-quarters or more are male, which makes it unlikely they will marry, start families and put down roots.
Imagine two or three years from now, the streets of South Tel Aviv. There are still 48,000 or so Africans in Israel, but many of them have moved to other parts of the country, those that remain are spending their days at jobs, and people head to that part of town to savor authentic Eritrean cuisine. It's our decision.