Jews have been refugees more than any other people in history. Exiled from their homeland of Israel twice, cast out from countries such as England, France, Spain, and Portugal, forced to flee persecution from Poland, Germany, Iraq, Russia, Morocco, Yemen, and Syria, and more, we have a long history of migration and immigration.
It is this familiarity with exile and flight from persecution — and the fact that the modern state of Israel was established as a safe home for Jews — that makes the current migrant issue in Israel so complex.
Over the past decade, tens of thousands of Africans have entered Israel illegally via the once-porous border with Egypt. A border fence has stopped the migration but, according to the African Refugee Development Centre, some 46,437 Africans in Israel consider themselves asylum seekers. Seventy-three per cent are from Eritrea and approximately 19 per cent are from Sudan.
The majority live in South Tel Aviv in long-neglected areas. Many work as janitors, cooks or labourers. For the Israelis who live in the same neighbourhood, the area’s large concentration of migrants has become a nightmare. Parks have become migrant hangouts, crime has risen, and residents feel unsafe.
Some say the government should spread the migrants throughout the country, to allow proper integration and prevent these kinds of issues. But the government doesn’t seem interested in settling the Africans, whom they claim are primarily not refugees, but migrants looking for work.
The UN defines a refugee as someone forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A 2016 UN inquiry into Eritrea’s regime found “widespread and systematic” crimes against humanity, which 5,000 people flee each month, as well as a harsh draft that many seek to avoid.
Despite thousands of applications, only 11 Africans have been granted asylum by Israel since 2013. At the beginning of January, Israel notified thousands of Africans that they have three months to leave or face incarceration.
The government called on migrants to leave “to their country or to a third country,” meaning Rwanda or Uganda, with whom Israel has supposedly made arrangements for the deportees. Those who leave by the end of March will receive $3,500, along with air-fare and other incentives.
The problem is that just because a person comes from one African country doesn’t mean he or she can survive in another, when one does not speak the language or have support.
Iyassu Zeru is a migrant, originally from Eritrea who crossed into Israel illegally in 2010 after paying a smuggler in Sudan $2,500. He says, “We are trying to organise so that we can go back to our country. We just want to stay in Israel until we can make our country better. We have a killer in charge [in Eritrea]. If we can change the killer, we’ll go back the next day.”
Some activists have proposed ways to help the Africans stay in Israel. One suggestion is for Israelis to marry the refugees. Others, such as Rabbi Susan Silverman, have joined forces to create The Anne Frank Home Sanctuary Movement, to hide migrants from authorities and prevent deportation.
Aside from the very disturbing analogy to Nazi persecution and the Holocaust, it is worth noting that both the government and individual activists believe they are acting in accord with Jewish and moral values: the government, by granting migrants funds and taking them to a safe third party, while protecting the state of Israel as a democratic, yet Jewish homeland; and the activists, by wanting to help the migrants find safety and better lives.
Recently, 470 university professors wrote an open letter to politicians, urging them to revise the deportation decision: “The state of Israel is large and strong enough to provide temporary shelter for tens of thousands of asylum-seekers… until the time they [are] able to return home freely and safely.”
That last line is the crux of the matter. The mass exodus from Africa of people fleeing persecution, war and poverty won’t be resolved by absorbing them into host countries, nor by sending them to neighbouring ones where they will be disadvantaged, poor and homesick.
To help Africans, the world has to do more than open its doors. Africa must become a place where people have no reason to flee in the first place. Instead of making rules and regulations for refugees, the UN must ensure there are no refugees, so people like Iyassu Zeru can return.
Take it from the people who have been refugees/migrants for 2,000 years. There’s no place like home.