Israel's African Question

Israelis, in particular, should know that migration is a fact of global society.

Some 60,000 Africans have crossed the Egyptian border into Israel over the past five years, most of them from Eritrea. Like the world's other 30 to 40 million "irregular" migrants, they came uninvited, and Israeli society has largely decided they are an unwelcome addition to an already fractured cultural landscape. There are no channels for integration under Israel's Jewish-only citizenship laws, no political appetite for blanket amnesties, and no chance for migrants to go about their lives without being noticed.

Israel thus faces an "African question": What to do with a growing number of people who are inassimilable and unwanted, and how to prevent more from coming?

Politicians have decided the answer includes withholding asylum status, deporting the most expedient cases, interning the remainder - and, most significantly for Israel's neighbors, sealing the Egyptian border. While such tactics face resistance from a vocal minority, they enjoy support across most of the political spectrum. In the meantime, African migrants in Israel face assault, destitution and intimidation, encouraged by the rhetoric of democratically elected politicians.

Israel is not their promised land. Most migrants would rather be in Europe, Scandinavia or North America, where integration and opportunities for permanent resident status are possible. A full 85 percent of Eritrean asylum-seekers in these countries gain approval for their claims. In contrast, during the past year, Israel approved only eight asylum applications from all countries of origin.

As with most issues here, debate on the African question begins from a deep sense of Israeli exceptionalism, and ignores both broader migration trends and the potential repercussions of Israeli policies. Instead of contemplating solely what migration means for the Jewish state, debate should serve to clarify how Israel figures in the wider Mediterranean migration system, of which it is now an inextricable part. Migration to Israel developed from within this context, something politicians would do well to study to avoid the negative consequences of militarized migration controls.

Last week the Italian daily La Stampa published the text of a new agreement between Italy and the transitional government of Libya. Designed to stem the tide of migrants leaving that country for Europe, it replaces a 2008 agreement that was nullified when the Gadhafi regime collapsed. Migration control was at the core of that agreement, and Libya's compliance was a crucial factor in the beginning of normalized relations with Europe.

The consequences for migrants were dire: Tens of thousands (from Africa and even Asia ) were either trapped in Libyan cities, interdicted at sea and made to disappear into Libya's murky prison system through Italy's controversial and illegal "push back" policy (which Israel mirrored with its "hot returns" ), or were forced to consider more indirect routes to Europe. By 2010 the number of migrants arriving from Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa had dropped from a high of around 25,000 annually to fewer than 5,000.

According to the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority, in 2006, fewer than 3,000 migrants crossed the southern border illicitly. By 2008 the numbers had grown to 9,000, jumping to an average of about 15,000 per year over 2010 and 2011. While migration systems are complex, and the Libyan closure isn't the only cause, the close correlation between it and the rising numbers is not coincidental.

As Mediterranean routes constricted, the journey through the Sinai became preferred. Smugglers became more adept, agreements with corrupt officials regularized, and migrant social networks formed, making the journey functionally easier. The horrific stories of torture, rape, extortion and murder at the hands of Bedouin traffickers in the Sinai illustrate that border closures do not deter migration.

Israel's recent experiences are not exceptional, and unilateral policies are simply not sustainable in an age of global migration. If recent trends are any indication, the likely outcomes will be exacerbated risk for migrants, more lucrative markets for smugglers, and higher expenditures on border security. The knock-on effects could include increased anarchy in Sinai and beyond. Israelis should be wary of the government's plan.

Israel can, however, use its exceptional history to push for effective international burden-sharing under what some scholars see as a nascent international migration regime. It certainly did so for the refugee regime as one of the architects of the UN's 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Israel should use the Global Forum on Migration and Development to protect and empower migrants, or leverage its position as a member of the International Organization for Migration to develop more sustainable management of regional flows.

More ambitiously, Israel can embrace the fact that it is no longer the only democracy in the neighborhood and appeal to the newly transitioned states' desire for legitimacy. It can help develop binding regional mechanisms, leveraging mutual self-interest and international human rights law, to concurrently protect both migrants and state sovereignty. This would also offer an opportunity to contest European initiatives that rely on authoritarian regimes to outsource human rights abuses and shift the burden to transit countries.

In the meantime, Israel can help migrants move on with their lives by adopting coherent procedures for determining refugee status. Israelis, in particular, should know that migration is a fact of global society. Sealing themselves off, whether with border fences or narratives of exceptionalism, is not a solution.

Craig D. Smith is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Toronto and is currently a research fellow in the department of international relations at the Hebrew University.