The Sustained, Unabashed Mistreatment of African Migrants in Israel

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Jun 21 2012

The violent and fear-mongering rhetoric wielded by both Israeli political figures and citizens that has recently caught major international media attention reflects the culmination of years of the racially motivated mistreatment of migrant workers. Major legal developments in 2012, including construction of the Egypt-Israeli border fence and the ten-thousand person detainment center located in the middle of the Negev desert, reflect the government's increasingly severe response to asylum seekers; Issues including including the legitimacy of refugee claims, the alleged strain on local economies, and the "overwhelming,” non-Jewish presence of migrant workers, have compounded over time into the intensely palpable prejudice that exists today.

Unsubstantiated and illegal denial of Refugee Status

Refugees are protected by international law. States generally abide by a standard set of procedures consistent with the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees to determine refugee status and facilitate migrant safety. Israel's policy of refugee determination is much more fluid, as virtually no formal process exists. Current determinations of asylum involve almost no oversight, and no prospect for appeal. Last year, Israel approved only one of the 4,603 asylum seekers that entered the country. Over 6,000 cases remain in flux. Israel claims that it’s extraordinarily low asylum grants are legitimate because the majority of claimants are solely economic migrants who came to Israel for work, rather than to escape persecution. However, Israel previously admitted in a report to the UN that at least 80% of African asylum seekers are entitled to refugee status. Many observers have balked at official media statements which suggest that less than 10% of migrants are legitimate refugees:

But such claims are necessary to justify unscrupulous Israeli deportation policies. In 2008 and 2010, Netanyahu considered offering African leaders millions so that they would accept deported asylum seekers. Netanyahu resumed these efforts in late 2011 and early 2012, again announcing intentions to travel to the very countries migrants are seeking refuge from to negotiate their forcible return. These ‘deals’ would violate the principle of non-refoulment, which prohibits the forced repatriation of an individual to a place where (s)he is likely to face persecution.

Additionally, the Israeli government has also repeatedly deported or threatened to deport hundreds of undocumented children. Sometimes deportations have been rescinded because of public pressure from NGOs and regular citizens, but some are later resumed. The fluctuating decisions of Israeli courts in deportation cases is again due to the ad-hoc nature of Israel’s refugee policy.

Inconsistent economic defense
The claims that migrants represent an unbearable economic strain on Israel’s economy proceeds from allegations that the majority of asylum seekers are, in actuality, economic migrants. African migrants are also accused of draining government coffers because of their costly social and welfare services.

The economic argument is often cited by individuals who seek to distance themselves from other, overtly racist stances against African migrants. But a purely economic defenses is problematic as well; Israel's "revolving door" policy allows agricultural migrant workers to reside in Israel for up to 63 months. However, migrants who are already in Israel are not allowed to apply for these positions. So even despite occupational availability, migrants are still deported. Not because no economic space exists for them, but because even semi-permanent economic spaces are denied to them. Other Israeli policies suggest that such social-engineering is ingrained in migrant policy; for example, relationships between migrant workers are actively monitored and discouraged. And at one point, before a court struck the policy down, migrants who became pregnant in Israel were deported. The common thread behind these policies is the desire to prevent migrant workers from establishing any sort of permanent ‘root’ in Israel.

Furthermore, while government resources are certainly spent on massive deportation facilities and long-stretches of 'defensive' fences, most migrants receive little to no government aid. According to the US Annual Report on Human Rights, migrants who are not granted refugee status have no access to health care. In fact, even in deportation centers, where migrants are directly under the government's care, migrants - including children - receive almost no social or medical services.

Outward, unabashed racism
According to recent Israeli statistics, asylum seekers account for approximately .76% of the population. Yet, fear-mongering officials and media reports warn that migrants will wash Israel of its essential Jewish character.Politicians, religious leaders, and citizens have engaged in disturbingly visible acts of racism. In Tel Aviv, citizens protested against the creation of a kindergarten for migrant children. In Bnei, Tel Aviv Rabbis signed a petition to encourage Jews against renting apartments to migrants.

This unwarranted obsessiveness with migrants’ non-Jewish presence has erupted into physical violence periodically times: recently, African businesses - necessarily owned by legal migrants as illegal migrants cannot openly work - have been ransacked by rioters. Other cases of violence and general intolerance have been documented especially as of late.

These individuals may only represent a portion of the Israeli population, but the recurrence - and general government approval - of these incidents demonstrate the enduring potency of these views.

Overstating the “security threat”
The indefinite dentition bill passed last July permits the wartime punishment of asylum seekers, demonstrating the extent to which migrants are perceived as national security threats. Migrants receive no trial and no guarantee of a timely deportation, and may be held indefinitely - all with extremely minimal oversight. Their case may only be reviewed within seven days and then once again every three years. Yet, while Israel prosecutes migrants and citizens aiding migrants, they execute minimal effort in persecuting smugglers that traffic migrants - even though many of these individuals are well within their jurisdiction, and conceivably represent as much, if not more, of a viable threat to local communities.

A previous Migrant Rights article written by an Israeli contributor noted the heavy influence of state-controlled narratives on the popular perceptions of migrant workers. The rhetoric used repeatedly by government officials particularly emphasizes the economic and security threats posed by refugees. For example, the Netanyahu government repeatedly repeatedly to asylum seekers as "infiltrators," and “fakes.” Scores of government officials have been quoted using similarly incendiary rhetoric;

In one recent example, a right-wing lawmaker told a crowd at a Tel Aviv rally that the Sudanese are “a cancer” in the body of Israel.

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"Israel is at war. An enemy state of infiltrators was established in Israel, and its capital is south Tel Aviv." - Danny Danon, a member of Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party

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The impact of the government's propaganda on Israeli perceptions of migrants evident in the rhetoric and overall approach absorbed by both the media and regular citizens. In this piece published by an Israeli citizen in an international webzine, the unconscious regurgitation of slanted dictum presented as fact by Israel illustrates the government's profound influence on the way the issue of migrant rights is framed.

Firstly, the article makes clear that preserving Israel's "Jewish Majority" is a) in no way overtly racist and completely legitimate and that b) Migrants are inevitably undermining Israeli identity. The first claim is a complex one that far extends the focus of this article. However, this unquestionably racial reference reflects the keystone of fear-mongering government talk-points - African migrants threaten the Jewish majority, which is not merely a question of Identity, but of Security. The second claim - that migrants will, with certainty, begin to overrun real, Jewish Israelies, reflects the uncritical assumption of contradictory official statements. Fears of a gradual African takeover are unfounded as migrants account for only 0.76% of the population according to official statistics. Any projected numbers of migration are based on current counts, and use mathematical formulas rather than assessments of the current political crises that actually determine migration. The statistics cited are either blind to real-world circumstances, or are produced on the presumption that the majority of refugees are economic migrants.

This brings us to another problematic inference accepted as fact - that African migrants are primarily economic migrants. Again, despite Israel's official statements to the UN, African migrants are perceived as either entirely illegal or entirely economic migrants or both. This article attempts to justify this conception by claiming that "Israel's strong economy and generous social services are the reason the nation is the most attractive destination to Migrants in the Middle east." A recent Gallop poll revealed that Arab countries, despite their hazardous reputations, far out-rank Israel in the terms of appeal to migrant workers. Furthermore, Israel's weakened economy is often cited in Israel's inability to 'absorb' economic migrants. Finally, only migrants who are granted refugee status - a disproportionally small handful - receive social services. Nonexistent welfare benefits are not lure for these refugees.

Sadly, this article presents itself in opposition to the government's management of migrant rights, and yet clings to the same misleading allegations used to justify Israel's actions. The author opposes the lack of regulation in the refugee process, but holds that Israel is only doing "what it can" - an essential carte blanche to protect "it's borders and identity" - the keystone of government security propaganda. Summary mass deportations and regular roundups, amongst other violations, are "far from perfect" but, according to the author, are still necessary and unavoidable - even though nations such as England and Canada grant up to 66% and 96% of illegal Eritrians refugee status, or that feasible alternatives including voluntary repatriation and re-location are used by other nations. Israel’s deportation measures are only ‘necessary’ because officials allocate more importance to inflating and conflating identity-security threats than to redesigning the presently arbitrary refugee policy - with international conventions and morals in mind.

Israel is culpable for engraining the misperceptions which lead to the mistreatment of migrant workers, in addition to their more material infractions against international law. However, not all citizens unquestioningly accept the government's slanted narrative. Israeli NGOs such as Israeli Children, the African Refugee Development Center (AIDC), and Hotline for Migrant Workers, advocate on behalf of migrants in both political and social arenas. They also provide migrants with essential social and networking services to facilitate their acclimation to Israel. These groups are pushing back against a strong current that is largely directed by government forces; every few weeks a new article reports on a new law meant to disenfranchise migrant workers, to deport them or to gradually push them out, or to deny them their very basic rights. Every few days a new article reports the backlash against migrant workers in both secular and religious communities. The Israeli propaganda machine is well experienced with the scrutiny of international media, rendering coverage of these incidents relatively ineffectual in changing the course of migrant and refugee policy. Consequently, NGOs and the wider conscience of civil society represent the greatest potential for the triumph of migrant rights in Israel.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East