On April 18 this year, 900 migrants from the African continent drowned as their ship travelling to Europe sank in the Mediterranean. According to Reuters, 1800 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean since the start of 2015. In 2014, 170,000 migrants made it to the Italian shores alone.
Until last year, Italy carried the burden of proactive search and rescue missions in the international waters of the Mediterranean Sea under the auspices of its “Mare Nostrum” program, the ancient Roman name for the Mediterranean Sea. When Italy closed down this mission at the end of 2014, the European Union took over. However, with a budget only one third of that of “Mare Nostrum” and focused on border patrols of the coast, it is widely assumed that the tragedy of the 900 drowned migrants can be attributed to the much more limited nature of the EU's program.
Apparently, the European Union’s heart does not bleed much for the migrants fleeing the troubles and wars of the African continent, especially when those migrants come dangerously close to upsetting the already vicarious balance between immigrants and Europeans on the continent. It does not help that Islamic State affiliated groups now partly control the shores of Libya, which dramatically increases the risks of terrorists sailing to Europe in those boats.
Migration is proving to be one of the great challenges of this century and since the year 2000, Israel has increasingly had to confront those challenges as well. According to UN figures, approximately 53,000 African migrants and asylum seekers make their home in Israel, the vast majority of whom have come from Eritrea (36,000) and Sudan (14,000). The real numbers are probably higher.
Israel has attempted to build a fence to keep out the migrants, who arrive via Egypt and who are mainly male, but migrants – or infiltrators, as they are called in Israel – manage to cross the border anyway. In February, it was four, in April, 11 and in May, 26 migrants managed to enter the country.
The Israeli government’s legislative efforts at dealing with the problem have repeatedly been struck down by the High Court of Justice. The Court frames the government’s efforts – among other things, putting illegal migrants in the Saharonim closed detention facility for three months and then holding them in the open Holot detention facility – as mainly a human rights issue. Israeli humanitarian organizations have lobbied to keep the migrants in Israel, but demonstrations they initiated with migrants angered most Israelis.
Israel’s detractors in Europe have applied similar logic, criticizing Israeli policies of keeping migrants out and trying to repatriate those who are already in Israel to safe third countries as contravening human rights and even as “racist.” Israel offers generous packages to those third world countries in Africa willing to take in the migrants.
The question of the African migrants is a complicated one. To address it solely as a human rights issue or to construe it in terms of “racism” is both dangerously reductionist and false. While there are certainly some refugees, most migrants are simply looking for a better life than the one their country of origin can provide.
If Israel were to allow the migrants to stay indefinitely, it would not only be rewarding violations of the country’s immigration laws, but it would set a dangerous precedent that could encourage millions of impoverished migrants from the third world seeking economic opportunities in the West to seek to infiltrate its hopelessly porous border with Egypt. Israel is the only first world country that these migrants can reach by foot. If Israel were to accept all of them, it would cease to exist as a Jewish state. It could also be putting itself in danger from within if some of the migrants turn out to be radicalized Muslims.
Israel is already facing existential threats in a hostile and volatile geopolitical environment and cannot really be expected to take on the responsibility for solving the problems on the African continent which drive the migrants to the border in the first place. The responsibility lies with the African countries that these migrants are fleeing and the international UN bodies set up to deal with such situations.
Europe – often referred to as Fortress Europe in the context of migrants – is much better equipped by its large size and geopolitical circumstances to deal with a huge influx of migrants than a tiny country with only a slight sliver of land to its name like Israel. Several countries on the European continent have accepted few to none African migrants – Iceland and Finland in the North, as well as several Eastern European countries, just to mention a few – as critics of Israeli immigration policies would do well to note.
The influx of migrants has already created serious and even dangerous problems for the residents of some of the neighborhoods in which they have settled, especially in southern Tel Aviv. Residents there report being afraid to leave their homes because of the fear of the African migrants living among them, not a few of whom have committed violent crimes, robberies, physical assaults and rape.
There are no easy answers to the challenges of migration, but there can be no doubt that the Israeli High Court of Justice must cease to obstruct Israel's elected government in its attempts to deal with those challenges.
Similarly, the Israeli government must act decisively on the social problems, especially the violent crime that this migration has created in certain areas in Israel, and not leave those Israelis who have to deal with these issues on a daily basis to fend for themselves.
Judith Bergman is a political analyst and a regular (freelance) columnist for Israel Hayom.