How Israel deals with its own refugee dilemma


When night falls and most of the green spaces in Tel Aviv empty out, Lewinsky Park fills up. Men stand or sit around, some of them in circles, smoking and chatting. They talk mostly in Tigrinya and Arabic.

Lewinsky Park is the unofficial community centre of the thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese who have ended up in Tel Aviv.

The surrounding district is packed with homes subdivided into units so small that showers sit above toilets. The homes were built to house some of the thousands of Africans who have crossed the Egyptian border since 2005.

The shops in the area have changed, catering to African tastes and pockets. A large number of Jewish residents have moved out; others have stayed and many have become angry at the changes around them. "Expulsion now" read banners at a demonstration in August.

On the Israeli political right, some are keen to raise concerns about the impact of the illegal immigrants - in some cases a little too keen. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked recently posted on Facebook a video she thought was of Africans rioting in Tel Aviv, but then took it down when she realised that the footage was filmed in Turkey.

Families reunited

Israel has approved entry to 9,000 Ethiopians claiming to be of Jewish descent, two years after bringing what it said was the final airlift of Ethiopians to Israel, according to JTA.
On Sunday the Cabinet voted unanimously to bring the Ethiopians, known as Falash Mura, to Israel over the next five years.
Falash Mura claim links to descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity generations ago but who now seek to return to Judaism and to Israel. Their permanent entry into Israel will depend on completing the conversion process.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the decision to bring in the last Ethiopians in Addis Ababa and Gonda was an important step [that] will enable the reunification of Ethiopian families.

The concerns of Ms Shaked and others on the right over illegal immigration may be serious, but anti-migrant sentiment is far less intense than it was three years ago, when the issue was at the forefront of the news agenda. There was national outrage over a wave of crime committed by illegal immigrants, including several sex attacks.

The police chief of the day, Yohanan Danino, went to south Tel Aviv and said of illegal African immigrants: "Every time I come here, I see the numbers growing. "They have caused the surge in crime."

The situation calmed down after it appeared that the sexual assaults were limited to a small group of attackers.

There have been recent attempts by migrants to cross the Egypt border into Israel and, just this week, Egyptian forces reportedly shot and killed 15 people trying to make the crossing. However, the completion of a border fence last year has largely stopped the flow.

In 2012, when everyone was talking about the African migrants, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: "If we don't stop them, the problem that currently stands at 60,000 could grow to 600,000, and that threatens our existence as a Jewish and democratic state." He said the issue "threatens the social fabric of society, our national security and national identity".

The fence, instigated by him, ensured that illegal immigration never grew to the proportions he claimed to be worried about. Today there are actually fewer illegal migrants - around 43,000 - than he said there were then.

How did that happen? Mr Netanyahu's original figure appeared to have been an overestimate.

But also, the government set up a controversial initiative whereby people are offered big cash incentives to leave Israel. Those who agree receive $3,500 (£2,300) and transport to either their country of origin or, if return home is deemed risky, to another country - normally Uganda or Rwanda. Around 11,000 people have left Israel through this programme, with 8,000 heading home and 3,000 go-ing to another country.

This all seems logical to most Israelis, says Sam Lehman-Wilzig, a professor at Bar Ilan University who closely follows the subject. "Most Israelis are willing to go along with it," he said. "It's not sympathetic to send them back but we have major problems ourselves." However, organisations that lobby on behalf of illegal immigrants are furious.

It is described as a voluntary departure programme, but the state is now summoning Eritreans (four-fifths of the Africans are Eritreans) and giving them the choice between the departure programme or indefinite detention.

"It cannot be voluntary when a person is told, 'If you don't leave you will face indefinite time in prison,'" said activist Sigal Rozen. She also argued that some of those who have left Israel have found themselves unsafe in their new surroundings, prompting some to move again - including to Europe. Her organisation challenged the state's policy in a court hearing last week, but the court upheld the policy and accepted the state's assurance people would be taken to safe surroundings.

As for those who remain, the state is upping pressure on employers not to hire illegal migrants, and summoning larger numbers to the big detention facilities in the Negev desert. Unlike the Eritreans, the Sudanese - who account for almost all of the rest of the illegal migrants - are freed from detention after a year, even if they refuse departure, but with a new condition: upon release they must agree to stay away from Tel Aviv and Eilat, where they go for community and job opportunities.

For Mr Netanyahu, these policies are the only way; as he put it in September, "Israel is a small country, which lacks demographic and geographic depth".

Ms Rozen counters: "They were talking about millions being on the way but now they are not coming. This now is a number that Israel can deal with."

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