How Not to Treat Asylum Seekers

There are issues on which pragmatism, logic and morality give way to populism and ulterior motives. If the moral argument doesn’t sway right-wing cabinet members, perhaps economic ones will

Eritrean migrants demonstrating outside the Knesset against the Israeli government's policy to forcibly deport African asylum seekers to Uganda and Rwanda, January 17, 2018. The Hebrew signs read, "No for deportation, Rwanda equal to death" and "Slaves for sale."
Oded Balilty /AP

Israel has proved more than once that it’s capable of taking a pragmatic, utilitarian approach to solving controversial problems. Examples include accepting reparations from Germany and withdrawing from Sinai in exchange for generous U.S. aid that has since reached tens of billions of dollars. Even prisoner exchanges meet the criteria for choosing pragmatism over principles.

But there are issues on which pragmatism, logic and morality give way to populism and ulterior motives. And not just populism, but the kind that causes economic and social harm and may even damage public health.

That is the case with Israel’s treatment of asylum seekers. Since April, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached an agreement with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, then withdrew from it less than 24 hours later, the government has had no plan for addressing this issue.

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The UN agreement involved resettling 16,250 asylum seekers in Western nations and giving around the same number temporary residency status within Israel. An additional 6,000 or so were to leave the country.

That would have required the state to provide health, welfare and education services for some 16,000 asylum seekers and to allow them to work in Israel. The arrangement would have decreased state spending on asylum seekers, but none of it was implemented.

The ethically, economically and socially responsible position is that for as long as they are here, the asylum seekers’ basic health, welfare and employment needs must be met. If the moral argument doesn’t sway right-wing cabinet members, perhaps the economic ones will.

The economics of public health rests on practices such as investing in preventive medicine and treating problems while they’re still small. That is both healthier and cheaper. But when basic health services aren’t available to asylum seekers, the chances that their problems will worsen, and perhaps even harm those around them, increase. The state would then have to enter the picture in any case, and bear the costs.

The same principle applies to social services. If problems are addressed in a timely fashion, crime and violence can be significantly reduced. But neglect encourages crime and violence and is liable to increase morbidity and worsen social and economic problems. The right-wing ministers understand this, but nevertheless promote a policy of neglect in the hope that this will kill the asylum seekers’ desire to be here.

An interministerial committee headed by the director of the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority, Prof. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, has recommended providing health and welfare services to asylum seekers, especially the most vulnerable among them. The Finance Ministry has approved the plan, which will cost 28 million shekels ($7.5 million), but the interior and social affairs ministers haven’t yet approved the committee’s proposals. It’s not a burning issue for them.

What the cabinet did approve was bringing in some 2,000 workers from India and the Philippines, instead of taking advantage of the fact that the asylum seekers are already here and in need of work, and would be able to take care of themselves if they got it, instead of relying on state funding.

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who strove to get the migrant workers brought over, feared that if these jobs were given to asylum seekers, it would undermine the government’s position: If they can’t be deported, their lives should be made miserable in the hopes that they’ll leave. Pragmatism, morality and economic logic lost.

The vehement opposition on the right (partly from politicians, but mainly from social media users) has led Netanyahu to decide not to decide and simply to perpetuate the asylum seekers’ unregulated situation. The price of this neglect is to worsen the asylum seekers’ distress and potentially increase friction and tension between them and their Israeli neighbors. Netanyahu must bring his interior and social affairs ministers into line and demand that they implement the Mor-Yosef committee’s recommendations, even if this tension benefits him.