Number of Illegal Migrant Workers Hits 300,000

Equals late 1990s peak that preceded huge deportation operation by immigration police.

The number of illegal workers in Israel has returned to near 300,000 - figures similar to those before the major wave of deportations at the beginning of the decade, according to Immigration Authority data presented yesterday at a meeting of the Knesset committee on foreign workers.

Immigration Authority Director-General Yaakov Ganot said despite the ongoing hostilities in Gaza, a steady stream of migrants continues to flow from Egypt to Israel at the rate of 400-600 a month.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel expressed doubt regarding the accuracy of the statistics.

Immigration officials believe 279,900 immigrant workers are currently in Israel, including about 50,000 Jordanians. Some 700 illegal Lebanese workers are currently in the country, many of whom arrived during Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon and did not leave with the 2000 withdrawal. Approximately 20,000 immigrants currently in the country arrived illegally through the southern border with Egypt.

The data also included some 90,000 tourists who remained in Israel illegally, but Ganot said figures for this demographic dropped from 145,000 in 2002 to 70,000 in 2006, amid concerted government attempts to deport those in the country illegally. Since that year, however, figures have grown by 5,000 annually.

Ganot, the first immigration police commander and the supervisor of the major deportations of several years ago, described the data as "disgraceful."

"These are shocking statistics," said MK Ran Cohen (Meretz), chairman of the Knesset committee. "Determined, organized action is required. We must make a major effort to close the border with Lebanon and to close off the skies, and to bring in as few foreign workers as possible."

Attorney Oded Feller of the Association for Civil Rights said in response that many of the illegal foreign workers have either lost touch with their employers or left them intentionally.

"If the Interior Ministry had followed the High Court order canceling restrictions on employers, there would be far fewer illegal residents. The Interior Ministry bears full responsibility for this," he said.

Feller also expressed doubt about the figures presented.

"I have no idea where they came from," he said, adding that figures for tourists who remained in Israel illegally demand particularly close examination.

Meanwhile, infiltration through the Egyptian border continues despite the fighting in Gaza. Ganot said in the first nine days of hostilities, 168 immigrants entered Israel illegally from the Sinai Peninsula.

"The fighting had no effect whatsoever. According to my calculations, we will reach an average of 600 a month," he said.

Immigration Authority figures indicate 5,230 immigrants crossed the same border in 2007, and 7,580 last year.

Ganot also announced plans to operate against illegal foreign workers employed in nursing and caretaker positions.

The Interior Ministry is currently creating a computerized database of workers employed in those fields. Those who entered the country legally but whose visas have expired can register for it, and if they meet certain criteria will have their visas re-authorized.

While the database is being constructed, police have been instructed not to deport foreign workers employed in the nursing and caretaker field.