Israel to Expel 2,000 African Refugees Who Fled to Eilat

Human rights groups say move violates int'l law; Refugees who stay won't be allowed to work legally.

The Interior Ministry has decided to expel from Eilat some 2,000 asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea, and prohibit them from working if they do not hold work permits.

They are among some 11,000 asylum seekers in Israel who will continue to live in the country since they are exempt from deportation while the United Nations decides whether to recognize them as refugees, though they will not be able to earn money legally.

Human rights groups condemned the "Interior Ministry's unrestrained conduct" Tuesday. "This draconian decision contravenes international and Israeli law on impairing basic human rights, and prevents healthy and industrious people from having the possibility of earning their own livelihood," several groups involved in protecting migrants' rights said in a joint statement.

Eilat community leaders have been pressuring the Interior Ministry for a long time to expel the asylum seekers from the city, saying they constitute a burden and a nuisance, and that many are unemployed and some are involved in crime. However, hotel owners have been pushing to keep them there since many of the migrants work in hotels in the city, redressing the employee shortage since foreign workers were banned from working in Eilat in 2007.

The Interior Ministry's population and migration registry says the decision to keep the Sudanese and Eritrean migrants from working will make it easier for Israelis to find jobs, including discharged soldiers who receive a grant for working in Eilat hotels.

"The refugees are not a burden or a hazard," said David Blum, the personnel manager of the Isrotel hotel chain. "If the municipality insists on removing them, it should help us get foreign workers."

Eilat hotels began employing asylum seekers who entered Israel from Egypt about two years ago, in response to requests by human rights groups and the Tel Aviv municipality, since most of the migrants were initially concentrated in Tel Aviv. At the time, the Interior Ministry banned asylum seekers from living between Gedera and Hadera, in an effort to push them away from Tel Aviv and disperse them across the country. The new ban on living in Eilat makes it more difficult for them to find legal housing.

Eilat hotels are in the midst of sending out dismissal notices to workers seeking asylum. Some of them have moved to Arad, another southern city, but that municipality also objects to their presence.

"They will wander from place to place, sleep on the streets and really become a nuisance," said Blum. "The state can't deport them because they have UN protection. It needs to decide what to do with them."