Did Tel Aviv Lobby the State to Oust African Refugees?

After the arrival of thousands of Sudanese refugees, the government instituted a 'Hadera-Gedera' policy.

A key Interior Ministry official says the Tel Aviv municipality exerted "heavy pressure" to win approval of a national policy requiring the removal of illegal immigrants and refugees to areas outside the center of the country.

In a letter to Arad Mayor Gideon Bar-Lev obtained by Haaretz, Yaakov Ganot wrote: "The decision in the matter of approval of the presence of the infiltrator population beyond Hadera and Gedera was taken in the context of discussions with the relevant parties, following many complaints relating to the phenomenon, especially in light of heavy pressure exerted by the Tel Aviv municipality."

Ganot is responsible for population, immigration and border control at the ministry.

Bar-Lev opposed the so-called Hadera-Gedera policy - keeping illegal immigrants and refugees north of Hadera and south of Gedera. The policy does not apply to refugees who have been granted permission to work in Israel.

The policy went into effect in February last year following the arrival of thousands of Sudanese refugees across the Egyptian border. Most made their way to Tel Aviv, where hundreds of them crowded into small shelters.

Over the past two weeks, the immigration police began extensive enforcement of the Hadera-Gedera policy, including patrols in the area around Tel Aviv's old Central Bus Station, a neighborhood with many illegal immigrants. Enforcement efforts have included detention of refugees and foreign workers and checking documents to identify those illegally in the country. So far about 700 migrants have been stopped and about 100 detained.

The Tel Aviv municipality reportedly exerted pressure to implement the policy. "Pressure was applied that included almost daily phone calls to Ganot," a source at the Population Authority said. "Endless numbers of discussions were requested and all of the necessary parties were involved including senior people who were on Ganot's back to push the policy through as quickly as possible."

According to Sabine Haddad, the spokeswoman at the Population Authority, "the orders never would have been issued if the problem had not been laid at our doorstep. The ones who created the problems were the mayors and other parties who asked us to find a solution. Even a city like Tel Aviv cannot provide work to tens of thousands of infiltrators," she said.

"It was decided to disperse them around the country. Originally the intention was to disperse them in the Tel Aviv area, but the mayors strongly objected, and then Eilat was tried, but there were complaints. Then [attention] shifted to the Negev. Ultimately the complaints were referred to us, but they are asking us to solve a problem that is not within our authority."

Yael Dayan, who as Tel Aviv deputy mayor and a city council member was involved in efforts to absorb thousands of African immigrants, denies that a tough stance was taken. "We really never applied pressure," she said.

"We asked for a budget and didn't receive it. When those staying in the shelters began coming down with infectious diseases, we prepared a plan for tents and budgeted NIS 1 million, and in the end the plan was not implemented because we improved the shelters and some of the refugees were transferred to rental apartments funded by contributions. Then the Interior Ministry came up with the Hadera-Gedera policy, which we didn't object to, but we explicitly did not apply pressure."

The removal of refugees and illegal foreign workers from the Tel Aviv area creates problems because many services are only available in Tel Aviv. Asylum seekers needing medical care are treated at two clinics of volunteers, one in Jaffa and one near Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station.

The municipality issued the following statement: "The Municipality of Tel Aviv-Yafo is the only public authority in Israel aiding foreign migrants, refugees and their children. During the winter of 2007-2008, with the massive arrival of asylum seekers in Tel Aviv-Yafo and following the inability to absorb the numbers arriving, shelters were opened in the city for this population."

The municipality added that "the shelters endangered the well-being of the shelters' residents and the public, and constituted a focal point for environmental and ecological hazards. The municipality therefore turned to the Prime Minister's Office. One of the ideas raised and implemented by the Interior Ministry was granting the right to stay north of Hadera and south of Gedera. This decision does not eliminate the obligation of the Tel Aviv municipality to help anyone who seeks asylum and foreign workers living in its boundaries."