Strangers in a strange land

NPR’s Morning Edition had a story this week about how Israel responds to African migrants. “In Israel, No Welcome Mat For African Migrants” was interesting, but I thought it had some flaws. You could begin with the headline, which in addition to stating that Israel is not friendly to African migrants, also seems to suggest that a welcome mat is the standard by which Israel’s immigration policy should be judged.

The substance for the claim includes the erection of a fence to help combat the illegal immigration into the country:

The $270 million fence will cover 87 miles of Israel’s southern border with Egypt. African refugees are smuggled through this area almost daily. They travel thousands of miles and often spend their life savings to try to reach Israel, a country they see as their doorstep to the West.

Israel, however, is far from laying down the welcome mat.

Sigal Rosen is an organizer at the Hotline for Migrant Workers, an advocacy group for refugees, in Tel Aviv. She says that though Israel signed the Geneva Convention relating to refugees, it regularly violates it.

“During the last years, Israel is sending a very clear message to all asylum seekers: Beware. We are not interested in your presence here. We will do whatever is in our power to prevent you from being here, even if the price is violating our legal commitments,” Rosen says.

The other ways the country is trying to deal with its immigration issues is by building an “open facility” detention camp to house refugees, punishing any employer who hires African migrants or supports their employment, and repatriating refugees. Last week it paid 150 southern Sudanese with pocket money and a flight home to vote in an upcoming referendum.

It’s unclear, from the story, which of these violates the Geneva Convention. I don’t even know what an “open facility” detention camp is. Heck, it’s unclear in this story why these people are “refugees” and not just people who have come into the country illegally. The story quotes precisely one of the people in the “African migrant” category and it’s unclear if or why he’s a refugee. It seems he’s there illegally.

As the number of Africans seeking refuge in Israel has risen, so has the number of people who walk through the door of Rosen’s office, trying to figure out their rights in Israel.

Oscar Olivier is one of those people. Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Olivier has lived in Israel for 16 years with no official status.

“I don’t even have a residency, and today after 16 years, I don’t have a work permit,” he says.

Olivier lives in a small apartment outside Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station. The area has been nicknamed “Little Africa” because of the thousands of refugees who have settled there. Olivier’s spartan room is undecorated except for photos of his 8-year-old daughter.

It’s for her that he has toughed out all these years, working as a janitor and house cleaner in what he calls an unfriendly environment.

“Not only to feel that you are not welcome, but to know that [you] are not welcome. So it ends up not a place for people who are different. It’s a place where people should be, look, all the same,” he says.

The story suggests that all Israelis are, look the same. Do Ethiopian immigrants look the same as Russian immigrants? Do black-hat Orthodox look the same as secular supermodel Israelis? And using the term “African migrant” to distinguish between people in the country legally and people in the country illegally makes it seem like immigrants — or even African immigrants — aren’t part of the legal Israeli population.

The opposition to such migration isn’t explored well. We’re told that the Interior Minister calls the “refugees” an “existential threat” that could challenge the Jewish majority in the country. But that’s it. It seems that this issue needs much more explanation for people like me who aren’t up-to-speed on every aspect of Jewish law or culture. And without that explanation, this just reads like a hit piece.

And on that note, even if we accept this piece stating that Israel has committed horrendous crimes against humanity, some context about how African migrants are treated by countries that neighbor Israel would be seriously helpful. Here’s a Foreign Policy post from Dec. 15 about Egypt permitting African immigrants to be raped, beaten, burned and then extorted by Bedouin human traffickers. Earlier this year, BBC reported on the 16th sub-Saharan immigrant to be shot by Egyptian authorities. Other comparisons might also be helpful. How large is Israel compared to its neighbors? How many people are attempting to gain residency there as opposed to other countries? How capable are all these countries to deal with mass immigration? Why? Most countries struggling with assimilation, integration or immigration flow report other social issues such as management of crime. Is that an issue here?

Blaming Israel and accusing it of human rights crimes is certainly one option for how to respond to the story of African migration. But for a news outlet with the ability to report a tragic and complex story, NPR could do better. With better information, the global community can come up with better solutions to the plight of these migrant communities.

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  • Dave

    Parallels with American policies toward illegal immigration make it hard to work up a mad at Israel unless one already has one at the USA.

    An open facility detention camp sounds like something one could not do in a country with real winter.

  • Jeffrey

    Heck, it’s unclear in this story why these people are “refugees” and not just people who have come into the country illegally.

    “Refugees” has a very specific definition under the Geneva convention. The story mentions immigrants from Congo and Sudan. Anyone with even a passing familiarty with Africa probably doesn’t doubt that the wars in neearby Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Chad and Congo would likely be “refugees” and not just “illegal immigrants.”

    I found the story was interesting and drew attention to a region and dispute most Americans don’t know as much about. It left unanswered questions, but wasn’t intended to be a dissertation on Israeli immigration policy.

  • Jerry

    I have to ask about the title – were you thinking of Exodus 2:22 or the Heinlein novel or both?

    First, I was also struck by the charge that Israel is violating the Geneva convention without one word of exactly what it is doing. Considering Israel as a western country, I think the proper comparison is to the policies in Europe.

    The story suggests that all Israelis are, look the same.

    “existential threat” to Israel…

    I did not read the story as suggesting that Israelis “look the same” but that these Africans are being viewed, as you underlined, as an “existential threat”. This “threat” on the other hand, needs to be read in the context of Israeli politics as outlined in this page:

  • tioedong

    yes, they have been clamping down on illegal Philippine workers too (and their children). A quick check of Philippine papers will show that the US and Canada are doing the same, as did Malaysia…

    But where are the stories of Saudi Arabia doing the same? No, because the civil rights of foreign workers there are the least covered story in the US press.


  • Mollie

    Please keep comments focused on journalism.