Israel is building a 60km-long barrier on its southern border with Egypt aimed at physically keeping out African asylum-seekers amid a rising tide of intolerance towards people widely referred to as “illegal workers".
The barrier will be built at two locations which witness the most crossings – near the Gaza strip and near Eilat. The estimated US$1.35 billion project is due to be completed at the end of 2013.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quoted in July as saying that the "flood of illegal workers infiltrating from Africa" into Israel was "a concrete threat to the Jewish and democratic character of the country".
Local news channel Ynet recently reported that Netanyahu was also considering paying African countries willing to take in Israel’s asylum-seekers.
Israel immigration authorities estimate 10,000 asylum-seekers have crossed the border so far this year, bringing the total number in the country to some 30,000. This represents a sharp rise on the 1,100 estimated to have crossed in 2006, despite the perils of the journey, which include Egyptian border guards that shoot on sight.
There is growing popular hostility towards asylum-seekers. They are accused of anti-social behaviour and being responsible for crime, although according to the website Migrant Rights, the evidence does not bear this out. Civic organizations protesting their presence are particularly active in Eilat, Arad in the southern Negev, and Tel Aviv.
In rundown southern Tel Aviv, Rabbis have issued a `halacha’ (traditional religious order) banning the renting of apartments to non-Jews.
Israel signed the 1951 Geneva Convention but only a reported 190 individuals have been recognized as refugees in the past 59 years, although thousands have group protection – people from Darfur, and Cote d’Ivoire, among others.
Some 85 percent of asylum-seekers are from the two troubled countries of Eritrea and Sudan, and yet Israel “refuses to review their asylum requests, knowing that these are recognized refugee populations”, according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).
“Instead, they are granted collective `temporary protection’ – an unstable status without any real rights – that protects them from deportation, and refuses to conduct individual examinations of asylum requests, which would allow it to recognize asylum-seekers as refugees.”
In February ACRI issued a stark warning over the possible consequences of Israel’s Infiltration Prevention bill being advanced by the Defense Ministry. The bill empowers border guards to immediately deport "infiltrators" who are citizens of an enemy country, which includes Sudan, before they can file for asylum. It also allows for stiff terms of imprisonment for infiltrators, and could criminalize the work of NGOs which help them.
“Israel will shake off all its obligations based on the UN Refugee Convention, a convention that Israel initiated and helped formulate in 1951, as a lesson of the Holocaust,” ACRI said.
The government argues that the bill is a much-needed security measure to guard against “terrorist infiltration”.