Eilat buckles under pressure of illegal African migrants

Immigration police arrest one of more than 5,000 illegal Africans in Eilat, who come to the town through Egypt

Immigration police arrest one of more than 5,000 illegal Africans in Eilat, who come to the town through Egypt

Eilat is struggling to deal with an influx of illegal immigrants from Africa, who now form some 10 per cent of the holiday town's population.

Hundreds of Africans, mainly from Sudan but also from Eritrea, Somalia, Ivory Coast and Ghana, cross over the Israel-Egypt border every month. Most try to reach Tel-Aviv, but many remain down south and gravitate either to the Negev city of Arad, or to Eilat.

Leaders in both Arad and Eilat have been calling for over a year on the government to find a way of ending the illegal immigration. This week, the mayor of Eilat, Meir Yitzhak Halevi, said he would take the government to court for not implementing the decision to build a new fence on the Egyptian border.

The cabinet decided four months ago to allocate NIS 1.8 billion (£300 million) to build a fence but so far the funds have not been authorised by the Treasury and there is no timetable for the work.

Currently, there are between 5,000 and 6,000 illegal African immigrants in Eilat, whose official population stands at 55,000. Some of them have no papers while others have been accorded a temporary status as political refugees by the UN and for now cannot be deported.

"I have nothing against these illegal job-seekers," says Mayor Halevi, "I understand they have gone through hardships but there is no guarantee that they are real refugees. And even if they have every right to be here, you can't just push into Eilat 5,000 new people, without any connection to the place and without any planning. A few months ago, 55 new immigrants arrived here from Hungary. It took us half a year to plan together with the Jewish Agency how to prepare for their arrival, housing, jobs, schools, everything. Now I have to deal with a hundred new people arriving here every day and I simply have no resources to deal with them."

Most of the many hotels have hired thousands of the Africans, mainly for cleaning and menial jobs. One hotel executive said this week, "it isn't really legal to hire these people but the government has taken away almost all our licences to employ foreign workers and there simply are not enough people here willing to do these jobs."

But the mayor is worried that the immigrants will also end up ruining the booming tourism industry.

"A town like Eilat needs a community at its heart, without that no tourists will want to come. Only a third of the illegal immigrants are working at the hotels, the rest are just kicking their heels, getting drunk and frustrated, becoming involved in petty crime and we don't have any resource to deal with this. The whole identity of Eilat is being eroded because of the government's inaction."

Last updated: 1:39pm, July 8 2010