African Migrants Deserve a Chance, Not Detention

Reactionary approaches like long-term detention facilities will not put an end to refugee infiltration since African migration is the new status quo.

Steve Klein
Steven Klein
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Steve Klein
Steven Klein

Nehemia Shtrasler would have us “turn back the wheel” to stop the stream of migration into Israel, relying on a border fence and long-term detention in yet-to-be-built facilities for salvation. This proposal, however, paves the way for a losing struggle in which Israel will be directly responsible for the suppression of migrant dignity. This is the lesson from similar experiments in Europe, the U.S. and Australia.

Clearly, the present situation is untenable, as increasingly violent reactions among the public towards the immigrants demonstrate vividly.

Reactionary approaches like long-term detention facilities, however, will not put an end to refugee infiltration because it misses the point that African migration is the new status quo.

The very idea of turning back the wheel is unconstructive. The Counter-Reformation and Prohibition both backfired in rolling back Protestantism and alcohol consumption, respectively. And in the realm of illegal immigration, the U.S. passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, which had little effect on its primary goal of removing illegal aliens from the U.S. labor market.

Illegal immigration to the U.S. did not decline until after the recent global economic meltdown. Likewise, African migrants will continue to arrive as long as Israel remains economically strong. No one in Israel wants to turn back the clock to the socialist days of economic stagnation in order to stem the tide.

Detention facilities with “decent living conditions” are not the answer to stop the “stream of migration, without shooting and without humiliation,” as Shtrasler imagines. The New York Times reported last year how mass detention leads to outsourcing the job of managing these facilities to the private sector, leading to human rights abuses and profiteering. The Council of Europe has condemned long-term detention.

Moreover, studies in Europe indicate that detention centers do not deter illegal migration, because the conditions in the home countries are too compelling a reason to leave. The effect of keeping migrants undocumented is humiliating and demoralizing, with recent reports suggesting protracted detention can lead to depression and even suicide.

Think of it from the migrant’s perspective. Who wouldn’t risk a year-long, all-expenses paid excursion to a detention facility in Israel if you were about to be drafted for 15 years into the Eritrean army? And even if Israel deters migrants from crossing the Sinai border, the migrants won’t give up. They will merely take riskier routes at higher personal costs.

The upshot is that if Israel relies on detention centers, it can look forward to years of running a revolving door for tens of thousands of despondent migrants. The cost is prohibitive. Even at half the amount of what the U.K. government budgets per migrant for its detention program, the cost to Israel of holding 30,000 migrants would be NIS 3 billion per year. And you’re telling me that’s better for Israel than giving them jobs currently held by temporarily imported foreign workers, jobs that find few takers among Israelis themselves?

The best way forward is to accept our new burden as a reality and learn from the lessons of Europe’s failed detention facility policies.

One lesson is that leaving refugees undocumented makes them more vulnerable to exploitation and despair, which increases social instability. Think tanks such as the Centre for European Policy Studies recommend documenting illegal migrants and giving them 12-month work permits so that employers can rely on them until their status is worked out. This policy upholds the migrants’ dignity and helps protect them from exploitation.

The problem, though, is that Israel wants to have its cake and eat it, too. Its leaders want to be part of the global economy yet act isolationist on immigration policy. Its leaders want to import cheap foreign labor but not grant immigration rights to foreign workers who have proved their worth.

No other government in the developed world dares think in these terms. If anything, they propose regulating immigration and documentation, but they all have a certain quota for immigrants who can enter legally or go through a due process. There are indeed detention facilities for migrants who arrive when the quota is already full. Even in this case, there is a right of hearing for would-be immigrants that is absent here. The Interior Ministry has only checked 15 percent of asylum requests and has approved less than one percent – since 1948.

Israel is not documenting its migrants, which contributes to their distress, increases their vulnerability and makes them more prone to crime. This lack of process, and the zero chance to begin an immigration process (even if quota-based), seems to violate a basic human rights concept now held by all democratic nations save Israel.

Israel should stop the exploitative practice of importing legal foreign workers and draw from the pool of migrants already here. It should also adopt an immigration policy that allows for the naturalization of deserving refugees so Israel can take its place in the global community.

The sad reality is Israel’s leaders are too xenophobic to see that their policy is the true long-term threat to the effort to manage the migrant issue.

Steven Klein is an editor at Haaretz and is finishing his Ph.D. from Bar-Ilan University in the conflict management and negotiation program.



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