Illegal Migrants & Refugees in Israel Major Trends and Background Information: Executive Summary
Many countries around the world, including Israel, are grappling today with how to deal with migrant and refugee populations. For Israel this issue is especially charged, touching on moral and ethical questions regarding the country’s identity as both a democratic and Jewish state and the obligation of Jews to help other oppressed peoples.
This document provides a brief update on major events and trends on this complicated and controversial topic. A more detailed background paper, including a brief description of Federation-supported activity and a list of NGOs working in the field, as well as a glossary of key terms, is available from the JFNA Israel Office.
To fully understand the issues it is important to distinguish between different but related populations of international migrants in Israel:
Economic Migrants - who primarily entered the country at Israel's request to fill gaps in the labor market, and who sometimes remain in the country after their legal status expires, and therefore find themselves subject to deportation; and
Asylum Seekers - who entered the country illegally or as tourists, and who are requesting safe haven from persecution in their home countries.
Economic migrants (often referred to in Israel as "foreign workers") have been arriving in Israel since the 1990s from a variety of countries to fill labor gaps, primarily in the construction, agriculture and caregiving sectors. Today there are over 100,000 migrant workers in Israel in these sectors, approximately 80% of whom are documented legal workers. While Israel continues to welcome their contributions to the economy the government has enacted a series of policies to prevent them from remaining permanently, and to hinder their integration into the mainstream of Israeli society.
Human rights organizations have been critical of some of these policies, which they claim enable exploitation of migrants by brokers and some unscrupulous employers, and which they see as failing to respect the basic human rights of migrants. These organizations are also outspoken against detention and deportation policies which have been deployed by the government. In recent years, Israel has taken certain measures to address these concerns but many in Israel feel there is still a great deal more to be done.
Asylum Seekers and Refugees
Large numbers of asylum seekers and refugees arrived in Israel between the years 2007 - 2012. Israel took a number of steps to stem the tide and reduce the number of new arrivals, including construction of a border fence with Egypt. These efforts have proven highly effective and no new asylum seekers entered Israel via Egypt in 2017. Today this population numbers approximately 38,000, most of whom are Eritrean and Sudanese nationals who illegally crossed the Egyptian-Israeli border. The Israeli government has been working to formulate a national policy which ensures the protection of these individuals without creating a precedent that might encourage renewed migration.
Here too, rights groups within Israel have been increasingly critical of various strategies that the government has sought to employ, including those which relate to the refugee application process itself, given that only a very small number of people have been granted asylum over the years. In response, government officials claim that most African asylum seekers are actually economic migrants and do not qualify as refugees. Israel’s High Court of Justice has recognized the government’s legal right to deport illegal migrants to any safe third country.
Not all Israelis have welcomed these asylum seekers and refugees with open arms. There have been significant tensions in neighborhoods where many migrants have settled, with some local residents blaming the migrants for increased crime and deteriorating neighborhood conditions. The situation is particularly charged in south Tel Aviv and in a few cases the tensions have escalated to include violence. Over the past few years some elected public officials have made highly unfavorable comments about asylum seekers, exacerbating this tension.
Israel has deemed Eritrea and Sudan unsafe and does not deport migrants from these countries back home, even if they entered Israel illegally. However, the government actively encourages their "voluntary repatriation" to third countries, including providing financial incentives. Israel has recently given these migrants an ultimatum - either leave the country voluntarily by the end of March 2018 or be subjected to long-term imprisonment. The government is also considering a plan for forced deportation.
The decision on the ultimatum has triggered heated public debate and widespread and growing opposition in Israel and, increasingly, in the North American Jewish community. Immigration officials have publicly stated that they are not equipped to carry out a mass forced deportation, and many in Israel do not believe such a plan is likely to be implemented in practice.
In addition, Israel has recently experienced an upsurge in asylum applications from Ukrainian and Georgian nationals who entered the country as tourists. It is widely believed that most of these applications are filed on fraudulent grounds, with the aim of taking advantage of the right of asylum seekers to work pending resolution of their applications. Israel has developed policies to enable the summary review and dismissal of most of these claims and their numbers have dropped dramatically.
Israel’s treatment of these migrant populations continues to occupy an important place on the national agenda. This is an issue which calls upon Israel to balance its identity as a homeland for Jews and as a democratic nation in the international community.
JFNA has refrained from issuing statements related to migrant challenges both in the United States and in Israel. JCPA sent a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu requesting that the government suspend its plan to deport Eritrean and Sudanese Asylum-Seekers and issued a statement in mid-January which can be viewed here. In addition, HIAS published an open letter to the prime minister which can be seen here.