On the African asylum-seekers

19 Jan

by Shachar Berrin 

Sinai fence

Israel’s border fence with Egypt.
Image credit: Ilan Bloch

It’s time to discuss a topic — the African asylum-seekers in Israel — using an unfortunately rare tool in political discourse: facts. Using Michal Rozin MK’s method of myth-busting, I’m going to go through some inaccurate and false claims that are often heard on the subject and disprove them.

1. Possibly the most popular (and therefore most insidious) claim  is that the African asylum-seekers are not asylum-seekers at all, but rather migrant workers, infiltrating our country to find better work. Let’s take a look at who these people are.

As of the end of 2013, there are 53,636 asylum-seekers (or “infiltrators”) in Israel — 35,987 are from Eritrea and 13,249 are from Sudan.

Israel has already recognized the fact that their lives are in danger in their countries of origin and the fact that they are under “temporary collective protection.”

According to the UNCRSR (United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees), Article 1.A.2, the definition of a refugee is: “Any person who: owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

The situations in Sudan and Eritrea are well within the scope of that definition. National service is mandatory in Eritrea, and entails humiliating and inhumane conditions. It often includes sexual slavery for young women and harsh labor in mines for men. The dictatorial regime in Eritrea is an oppressive regime that is governed by military laws and anyone who voices opposition to the regime is likely to be subject to imprisonment, torture, rape and execution without trial. The UN declared that the situation in Eritrea is a “humanitarian disaster,” a description reserved only for Eritrea out of all of African countries. The most direct comparison for the oppressive regime of Eritrea is the regime of North Korea.

One of the key requests of the asylum-seekers is that their refugee applications be processed so that their status can be officially determined. However, the government refuses to process them. Instead the government leaves them without a status and chooses to refer to them as “infiltrators.” Some even go further than that, even to the point of incitement, such as Miri Regev MK (Likud-Beiteinu), who referred to asylum-seekers as “a cancer in our body.”

For those who doubt that Eritreans deserve refugee status, an additional proof lies in the number of Eritreans who have received such a status across the world. According to Rozin, “in 2012 around the world 26,000 asylum requests were checked for Eritrean asylum-seekers. 20,000 of them were recognized as refugees. An additional 1,500 received other supplementing protection.” A vast majority (82%) of Eritreans were given protection after being processed. Additionally, 65%-70% Sudanese asylum-seekers were recognized as refugees across the world.

These people’s lives are in danger. They came to Israel to escape the tyranny and violent oppression in their countries of origin. These people are refugees.

2. Another common claim that is heard is that since the first country into which these asylum-seekers entered was Egypt, then under international law they are Egypt’s responsibility and Israel has no obligation toward them. First of all, this is simply untrue and no such clause exists in international law (cf. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees: 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol, both of which Israel signed and ratified). Second of all, historically, Egypt’s way of dealing with these people is to shoot them on sight. These people are searching for asylum and looking for a place in which their lives are not in danger. Therefore, Egypt cannot be considered as a place of asylum for these people, and therefore, responsibility for the safety of those who entered Israel from Egypt falls on Israel.

3. An all too common claim is that these asylum-seekers are naturally violent and are more inclined to turn to crime than Israeli citizens. These claims are obviously fueled by xenophobia and racism. Nonetheless, it’s important to disprove them, so let’s have a look at the numbers (taken from police reports):

In 2010, in Tel Aviv, the general Israeli crime rate was just above 6%, while the crime rate among the African asylum-seekers was just below 1%. In Eilat, the general Israeli crime rate was just below 6%, while the crime rate among the African asylum-seekers was just below 1%. In Arad, the general Israeli crime rate was just below 3%, while the crime rate among the African asylum-seekers was approximately 2%. In Ashdod, the general Israeli crime rate was approximately 2%, while the crime rate among the African asylum-seekers was approximately 1%. So, as we can see, this offensive preconception has no basis in reality.

Right now, it is not the case that there is increased crime amongst this population. However, Israel’s mishandling could produce such a situation. That could result from dumping tens of thousands of people into a condensed area and not allowing them to work and have access to healthcare or welfare. Crime flourishes in poverty-stricken areas, which is why we have to stop the poverty. The status quo is a recipe for disaster.

4. Some claim that this isn’t only Israel’s problem and that other countries should also bear responsibility and absorb some asylum-seekers.

The short and simple answer to this claim is: They do.

Once again let’s look at the numbers.

Here’s a list of some countries and the number of asylum-seekers which they absorbed during 2008-2012:

USA: 313,500
France: 232,700
Germany: 201,300
Canada: 139,200
UK: 137,940
Italy: 107,800
Belgium: 95,720
Switzerland: 90,010
Greece: 64,970
Netherlands: 62,080
Norway: 60,560

As we know, Israel has absorbed only 53,636 asylum-seekers. Israel is only one of many countries that signed and ratified the Convention and Protocol, and many of them are doing their job and fulfilling their responsibilities. It’s time for us to fulfill ours too, and deal with them as per international law.

5. 53,636 can look like a big number, which is why some people claim that these asylum-seekers are a “demographic threat” to Israel. But let’s put that number into context. Israel’s population currently stands at slightly more than eight million people, which means that there are 6 African asylum-seekers per one thousand Israelis. In other words, they are a minuscule 0.6% of Israel’s population.

Let’s compare that to some other countries. Here is a list of countries and the percentage of asylum-seekers out of the general population, as of 2012:

Malta: 21.7 per 1,000 (2.17%)
Sweden: 16.4 per 1,000 (1.64%)
Liechtenstein: 16.1 per 1,000 (1.61%)
Norway: 12.4 per 1,000 (1.24%)
Cyprus: 12.4 per 1,000 (1.24%)
Switzerland: 11.7 per 1,000 (1.17%)
Luxembourg: 11.5 per 1,000 (1.15%)
Belgium: 8.9 per 1,000 (0.89%)
Austria: 8.5 per 1,000 (0.85%)

Percentage-wise, Israel has far fewer asylum-seekers than any of these countries. These people are in Israel temporarily, and their numbers don’t interfere whatsoever with the demographic make-up of Israel.

6. Obviously, we can’t talk about all this and not bring in the economic factors. People have said that an influx of poor refugees will necessarily tank our economy. However, quite the opposite is true. Many Israeli industries are in desperate need of workers, and have requested to be allowed to hire and employ asylum-seekers.

Here is a list of different businesses and industries in Israel and the number of workers that are in demand:

Restaurants: 21,000
Building: 20,000
Cleaning: 10,000
Agriculture: 5,000
Hotels: 4,000

We need these people, and these people need us.

According to estimates of the Ministry of Finance, Israel is losing out on 180,000,000 shekels every year because we are not allowing asylum-seekers to work, and are not collecting taxes from them.

Additionally, the way the government has been handling (or mishandling) the situation thus far has been incredibly wasteful and expensive. Not only are we missing out on taxes, but we also spent half a billion shekels (!) on building the Holot and Saharonim prisons, in which thousands of asylum-seekers are being held.

7. Another preposterous claim is that our current handling of the situation serves as a necessary deterrent to stem the tide of African asylum-seekers. However, we already built a fence on the Israeli-Egyptian border, construction of which was completed at the end of 2012.

To see how effective it is, let’s look at the numbers. Here is a list of the number of asylum-seekers who entered Israel from 2006 onward:

Up to 2006: 2,752
2007: 5,124
2008: 8,857
2009: 5,259
2010: 14,715
2011: 17,298
2012: 10,440
(Fence construction was completed)
January: 10
February: 5
March: 3
April: 10
May: 2
June: 5
July: 1
August: 0
September: 0

2013 Total: 36

There was a steep decline between 2012 and 2013, from 10,440 to a mere 36. The fence has proved itself to be very capable of stopping people from entering Israel, and no further deterrent is necessary. Furthermore, the rationale behind using the imprisonment of asylum-seekers is to make their lives in Israel so hellish, that the idea of being “voluntarily” deported to their genocide-ridden countries of origin looks appealing.

These people came to our country to find refuge, and instead of living up to our responsibilities, we are trying to make their lives as miserable as possible.

Now we come to the last claim left in the toolbox, the claim saying that “Well, it’s so easy to criticize and object, but what do you have to offer instead? What alternative solution can you offer?”

Firstly, I agree. It is ridiculously easy to criticize the current practices of the government.

Secondly, a solution does exist and has been proposed. A fair and just solution that benefits everyone on all sides.

They are here. They are going to stay. We cannot deport them. But what we can do is give them permits and allow them to work in industries in which workers are desperately needed. Then, instead of being squeezed into Tel Aviv, Eilat, Ashdod and Arad and left there with no job, no access to healthcare and no home, they can be spread throughout the country and start working.

The status quo is unjust, immoral, illegal, nonsensical, wasteful, expensive and, most of all, unsustainable. These people cannot continue to live in poverty, especially when such a better solution presents itself.

This plan will work and is the only fair and sensible solution.


The Israeli Immigration and Population Authority: Statistics on Foreigners in Israel
Israeli Police reports in Tel Aviv, Eilat, Arad, and Ashdod
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: Asylum Trends 2012

Shachar Berrin is interning as an assistant to Jerusalem Meretz Councilwoman Dr. Laura Wharton. The views presented here are his alone. 


One Response to “On the African asylum-seekers”

  1. Maury January 19, 2014 at 4:18 pm #

    really well written – thank you!

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