Israel Aims to Expel African Asylum Seekers at Doubled Pace

The goal is to get at least 600 Eritrean and Sudanese nationals to leave each month, for a total of 7,200 a year, and replace them with Palestinian workers

Thousands of asylum seekers protest Israel's efforts to deport them to Rwanda and Uganda on January 22, 2018 outside the Rwandan embassy.
Meged Gozani

The government is seeking to double the pace at which African asylum seekers leave Israel, and to replace them with Palestinian workers.

The target the government has set is to get at least 600 Eritrean and Sudanese nationals to leave each month, for a total of 7,200 a year. That is more than double the approximately 3,300 who have left in each of the last three years. The last time the government achieved a departure rate similar to its current target was in 2014, when some 6,400 Africans left.

A resolution adopted at a special cabinet session two and a half weeks ago says that if, on average, at least 600 “infiltrators” a month leave, the government will issue one Palestinian work visa for every two Africans who depart. The resolution doesn’t explain why this ratio was chosen.

The Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority, which is responsible for carrying out the deportations, said on Sunday it wasn’t consulted on the matter and cannot explain the decision.

According to the authority’s data, some 34,000 Eritrean and Sudanese adults currently live in Israel. Most are employed in restaurants, hotels or cleaning jobs, and the government expects most of them to leave within the next three years.

In their stead, the resolution said, the government will grant up to 12,000 work visas to Palestinians. An inter-ministerial committee will decide which industries these Palestinians will be authorized to work in.

The cabinet also decided at that meeting to grant work visas to up to 13,000 additional Palestinians, including 1,500 for the restaurant industry, 1,000 for the hotel industry, 7,000 for construction, 2,000 for agriculture, 1,000 for institutional nursing care and 700 for East Jerusalem hospitals.

According to data from the Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, some 70,000 Palestinians are already employed in Israel and another 30,000 in the settlements.

About 10 days ago, the immigration authority began informing asylum seekers held at the detention facility in Holot that if they don’t leave Israel, they will be jailed indefinitely at Saharonim Prison. So far, such notices have been handed to a few dozen of the approximately 900 asylum seekers at Holot, which is slated to be closed in about another six weeks.

Israel about to read them the riot act 

In early February, the authority is slated to start handing out such notices to thousands of asylum seekers who aren’t at Holot when they come to renew their visas, which they must do every two months. Authority employees will give these asylum seekers one final two-month visa and tell them that if they haven’t left by the time it expires, they will be unable to work legally and be subject to arrest and unlimited detention. This step is expected to remove thousands of asylum seekers from the workforce in April and May.

Hoteliers and restaurateurs have recently warned that mass deportations of asylum seekers will seriously harm their industries. They say there aren’t enough Israelis willing to do the jobs now done by Eritreans and Sudanese, even if they are offered higher wages.

Tourism Minister Yuval Levin told TheMarker three weeks ago that he’s trying to get government approval to bring in migrant workers from the Philippines to replace the African asylum seekers at hotels. On Sunday his office said it has received approval for 500 Filipinos now and another 500 later if the program proves successful, along with 1,000 Palestinians.

More than three years ago, the government approved letting 1,500 Jordanians come to Israel to work in Eilat hotels in place of African asylum seekers. These workers commute to Israel, going home every night.

Shai Berman, head of the Israeli Restaurant Association, said on Sunday that the plan approved by the government is inadequate. “We received a quota of 1,500 Palestinian workers who are supposed to replace more than 10,000 asylum seekers,” he said. “Given that Israelis aren’t interested in filling these positions, that’s not really a solution.”

Moreover, he said, employing Palestinians “isn’t at all simple. You have to get a permit from the army for them to stay overnight and then rent apartments for them. You have to remember that for us restaurateurs, it’s not like in construction, where they can come to work and at 3 P.M. the van comes and takes them back home. For us, work at many businesses begins at 3 P.M., and it also includes weekends.”

Meanwhile, the immigration authority is still trying to recruit new immigration inspectors to help carry out the deportations. In response to a question from Haaretz, the authority said on Sunday that 300 people have applied for the jobs, of whom 100 will be hired, almost doubling the current number of inspectors.

The new inspectors will start work in March on two-year contracts. Aside from detaining asylum seekers who are here illegally, they will be responsible for enforcing the law against businesses that employ asylum seekers illegally.

The authority said it has also received some 300 applications for 40 new positions at the Refugee Status Determination unit in south Tel Aviv, which processes asylum applications. This is a significant boost over the unit’s current staff of 60.

Both categories of new workers are being promised special bonuses – 30,000 shekels ($8,900) for the inspectors and 20,000 shekels for the RSD staffers – if they stay on the job for a specified period of time.