Israel's African Refugee Crisis

Tuesday, January 07, 2014 |  Israel Today Staff

Everyone talks about the Palestinian “refugee” issue, but Israel is in the midst of a different kind of refugee crisis at present as over 50,000 Africans who have taken up residence in southern Tel Aviv demand asylum.

For the past two days, thousands of these migrants have been demonstrating through the streets of Tel Aviv, insisting that Israel stop holding them in detention upon arrival in the Jewish state and grant them official refugee status.

Many European nations have provided African refugees with as much, so why not the Jewish state? But tiny Israel, with its lack of resources and other serious demographic threats, is reluctant to do so.

Not only that, Israel notes that most of those calling themselves “refugees” are young men from Eritrea and Sudan who migrated primarily in search of better economic opportunities.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry pointed out that it is the only developed nation with a land border with Africa, making it the most desirable destination for those who cannot afford to fly or take a ship to Europe. If Israel acquiesces to the demands of the protesters in Tel Aviv, argue Foreign Ministry officials, it will open a flood gate and create a situation Jerusalem really won’t be able to control.

At the same time, there are many in Israel that insist given the way Jews were treated abroad for so many centuries, the Jewish state has a moral obligation to help any and all oppressed or destitute migrants, even if it doesn’t necessarily have the means to do so.

The mounting debate has led to some fierce exchanges between government officials and pro-migrant activists on Israeli television. The situation has not been helped by recent criticism of Israel’s policies toward migrants by the local representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The UNHCR says Israel’s solutions to the African migrant problem are not in keeping with the 1951 Refugee Convention. Israel recently passed a new law to set up a large open detention center where all new migrants will be kept pending their expulsion.

For most Israelis, the issue is one of definitions. While there are some true refugees from racial violence among the migrants, should any and all destitute Africans be granted legal status in the Jewish state? Some say Israel must do anything to help those in need, no matter the cost. Others are adamant that would quickly lead to Israel’s demise.

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