Israel Admits: We're Incapable of Forcing Out All 40,000 Asylum Seekers

Interior Minister Dery slams Supreme Court for setting limits on detention for those who refuse to leave

A kindergarten in south Tel Aviv attended by children of Eritrean asylum seekers.
A kindergarten in south Tel Aviv attended by children of Eritrean asylum seekers. Eyal Toueg

Interior Minister Arye Dery acknowledged Monday that Israel cannot force the departure of all asylum seekers from Africa, who number upwards of 40,000.

“Even if problems with third countries are resolved we won’t be able to remove all the infiltrators. There is a certain amount with whom I’ll know how to contend and divide up. Right now it’s too large a mass for us,” said Dery on Monday in an interview with on Army Radio.

Dery reiterated that Israel was trying to amend the agreements reached with third countries so that the consent of deportees is no longer required before they are sent to those countries. In the meantime, the Population and Immigration Authority is promoting an amendment to the law regulating entry into Israel, which would allow the indefinite detention of asylum seekers who refuse to go to Rwanda or Uganda. The Supreme Court has restricted the incarceration of people refusing to leave to two months.

Dery criticized the Supreme Court’s decision. “We hid nothing from the Court. The Court sent us back and forth several times and received the outline of our agreement with third countries, who expressly knew that we were not taking people to airplanes in handcuffs and that people refusing to go would remain under guardianship here until they consented to leave. These countries and the Court knew this, so I’m surprised that they ignored this point,” he said.

In response to a question of whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was surprised by what he saw on a visit to south Tel Aviv, Dery replied in the affirmative several times. The two toured the area in a car with dark-tinted windows, guided by people from the Population and Immigration Authority. This was Netanyahu’s second visit there within a span of several days. In his first eight years in office he had not been there once.

Dery: In south Tel Aviv, 'you hardly see any Israeli out at night' 

“When you see the atmosphere there, on a pleasant day with everyone outdoors, it’s nice to see,” said Dery. “But when you look at the buildings and streets and you know what Neve Sha’anan, Levinsky and HaGdud HaIvri Streets and the park used to look like, everything has been wiped out. You hardly see any Israeli in the dark hours and it wasn’t even that late. You see those families and their children. When you hear police reports on what goes on there at night and you realize that Tel Aviv residents still live there, Israelis and Jews who found a place for themselves there. Why are they to blame?”

Dery voiced some veiled criticism at his Shas rival Eli Yishai, who was interior minister between 2009 and 2013, when most African asylum seekers entered Israel. “I really don’t know who put them on buses after they crossed the fence on the border with Egypt, bringing them to Tel Aviv. Who decided to bring them there, of all places? Who decided to place them among the weakest population and destroy its way of life and its neighborhoods? The issue of who made this cruel and foolish decision should be looked into. I opposed it when I saw it,” he said.

The new director-general of the Population and Immigration Authority, Prof. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, who assumed his post last month, said in an interview to Reshet Bet radio that it might be possible to deal with the asylum seekers in Israel, but if conditions are eased many others might come. “On a personal level and as an option that’s on the table, of course it’s an option. Ultimately one could say that there is a certain number here and further entry has been blocked, so let’s deal with these 40,000 people. This is a limited problem which could have a solution. But what if 20,000 others arrive?” he asked. “What happens when they see that the state can live with that, saying OK, keep on coming? That’s why such a decision is not on the agenda now. No one is raising this as a possibility. Now we want to minimize the numbers of illegal infiltrators in Israel.”

Mor-Yosef related to criticism of Dery’s announcement that he would forbid the employment of asylum seekers who refuse to leave for a third country. “We aren’t starving them. It’s not at that level. Illegal migrants cannot work, according to the entire world. At one point there was no option so we let them work in order to survive. Now there is an option which Israel prefers. No one is starving them. They are given $3,500, a plane ticket and accompaniment to a third country so that they can live there peacefully. The state wants them to exercise that option and if they don’t, it doesn’t want to provide them with any more benefits.”