Since 2006, thousands of Africans, mostly Eritreans and Sudanese, have fled their country escaping conflict, human rights abuses and destitution. They move to Sudanese refugee camps where many are kidnapped by traffickers and delivered to criminal gangs in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, subjecting the refugees to deplorable conditions, including torture and rape, while ransom payments are demanded from their families. The majority of those abused in the Sinai who were freed now reside in Israel. Along with those African migrants who had paid smugglers to take them to Israel, they now makeup an immigrant population of 60,000. Israel’s response to the influx of Africans has been to reinforce its siege mentality, labelling the migrants as “infiltrators” and a direct threat to the future of Israel as a Jewish state.
To maintain the state’s Jewish ethno-religious character, Israel has implemented a two-step solution to their non-Jewish African problem. The first step has been to shut down the growth of African migrants entering Israel through the Sinai Peninsula by building a 240km border fence with Egypt. The second step has been to clear Israel of those Africans already inside.
The results of Israel’s border fence have been statistically impressive with a mere 34 people entering Israel illegally in the first half of 2013 - compared to nearly 10,000 people in the first six months of 2012, a decrease of more than 99%. Whilst Israel does have a right to control its borders, its fence is a violation of refoulement - an international human rights and refugee law which stipulates that anyone seeking asylum must not be rejected at the border or forcibly returned until their refugee claim has been processed. By pushing asylum-seekers back into the Sinai, Israel is effectively condemning them to further abuse by traffickers and Egyptian forces who previously attacked asylum-seekers in Cairo in 2006 as they protested for refugee rights, killing dozens.
The knock-on effect of Israel’s border fence has been the opening of new migrant routes. African asylum-seekers are now increasingly heading to the Mediterranean, initially coming through Libya before being trafficked to Malta, Lampedusa and Sicily, which act as a springboard into the rest of Europe. The recent rebellion of 500 African migrants who stormed Spain’s North African enclave in Melilla, and the rescuing of 4,000 migrants in Italian waters over a four day period, is evidence that by tightening the noose in the Sinai, Israel has simply shifted the burden elsewhere.
The “second stage” of Israel’s conquest to rid the state of African infiltrators is rooted in the recently amended Anti-Infiltration Law which permits the imprisonment of asylum-seekers for one year without trial, followed by the threat of indefinite detention in a specially built internment camp in the Negev desert holding 3,000 inmates. Restricting the freedom of asylum-seekers by requiring them to attend roll-call three times a day, whilst also refusing to process their refugee applications, Israel’s Anti-Infiltration Law is an affront to the UN’s 1951 refugee convention, which Israel signed, and is a clear illustration of Israel’s goal to remove any demographic threat to the Jewish majority within Israel.
For the tens of thousands of Africans not in detention, the Israeli government, in conjunction with religious figures and media outlets, has orchestrated a campaign against non-Jewish African people. The campaign has provided ideological support for the dehumanisation and racial persecution of the migrants, which has consisted of their being labelled as a “cancer in our body” by Israeli politician and Knesset member, Miriam Regev. These African migrants are restricted from working and prohibited from access to health and welfare services, whilst subjected to racially incited attacks which culminated in the firebombing of a school for African children. As noted by Max Blumenthal in his book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, in modern day Israel, the African refugee has occupied a precarious role with some Israelis viewing them with scorn.
Israel has refused to accept the multicultural composition of its society as this goes directly against its desire for a Jewish state, but history and globalisation has shown us that its Zionists aspirations are not sustainable. Israel has welcomed millions of Jewish immigrants since its foundation, but has only given refugee status to 1% of those African asylum-seekers currently in Israel when in the rest of the world 64% of Sudanese and 84% of Eritreans (the largest African demographic groups in Israel) that request asylum receive refugee status. This is a clear illustration of Israel’s fear of the arrival of the first large group of immigrants to its land who are non-Jews.
Instead of dehumanising refugees and imposing new restrictions designed to shift the burden elsewhere, we must recognise that the problems refugees face can only be tackled through universal and regional co-ordination, as well as heartfelt national efforts. Israel must adhere to international law regarding refoulement and the treatment of refugees, whilst it must also seek to build closer ties with the African Union to prosecute Sudanese and Egyptian traffickers, whilst also ensuring safe repatriation for people who have fled the darkest of evils.