IDF, Netanyahu Disagree on Extent of Refugee 'Tidal Wave'

Knesset report counts far fewer refugees than army estimate.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned last month that a "tidal wave of refugees" is threatening to turn Israel into a third-world country. Israel Defense Forces Southern Command officials estimated that the refugees number two million. However, a Knesset study shows the figures are much lower.

A report prepared by the Knesset Research and Information Center in September 2009 says 41,423 refugees are in Egypt and only a few hundred of them may enter Israel a month, seeking work or asylum. These figures were corroborated by a report compiled by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office in Cairo last September.

However, MK Yaakov Katz, chairman of the Committee on Foreign Workers, did not pass this information on to committee members during their tour of the southern border a few months ago. Nor did he mention it when IDF officers warned the MKs of "the strategic threat to Israel's survival."

The figures provided by the IDF were not compatible with the RIC report. According to the RIC, from January 2005 to October 10, 2009 some 17,500 refugees - seeking work and asylum - entered Israel illegally via the Egyptian border.

A large community of between one and three million African migrant workers lives in Egypt, mostly from Sudan. The absolute majority of them have been working in Egypt for several years and have no desire to leave. There is also a community of some 122,400 refugees and asylum seekers in Egypt, 70,000 of them Palestinian, the report says.

The report was also not passed on to the members of the Knesset's Interior and Environment Committee, who will soon vote on a bill imposing heavy penalties on infiltrators and anyone who helps them. However, some committee members are apparently not interested in knowing the accurate figures and information pertaining to the refugees ahead of voting on the bill.

"It really doesn't matter how many [refugees] enter Israel," said committee member Miri Regev. "Today on the tour in Arad they told us more than 1,000 infiltrators entered Israel in the past month. A clear-cut immigration policy must be set, distinguishing between infiltrators and refugees."

"We received information from the IDF, I didn't see the [RIC] report and it doesn't interest me," said committee member Arye Bibi. "Some infiltrators they know about, and others they don't. I'm humane, but the border can't be wide open."

Katz's spokesman said the committee discussed the matter and the chairman accepts the IDF's assumptions.

"Almost all the migrants who came to Israel are people who requested asylum at the UN in Cairo, waited for years for their situation to improve, and lost hope," Bill Van Oswald, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said after the committee's meeting in October.

"Today, there are around 20,000 people in this situation, and they are the relevant ones. Certainly not one million," he said.

Human rights representatives were not invited to the committee's meeting on refugees. A worker for the Hotline for Migrant Workers said the committee was probably afraid to hear the real figures.

"They're afraid to hear that there are not one million migrants waiting to enter Israel, and that this figure is not based on information but on hatred of foreigners," the worker said.