Israeli Government to Refugees: Go Back to Africa or Go to Prison

William Booth, Washington Post, May 14, 2015

As Europe struggles to stem a spring flood of migrants from Africa and the Middle East trying to cross a deadly Mediterranean Sea, Israel has begun to toughen its stance toward refugees, telling unwanted Africans here they must leave now or face an indefinite stay in prison.

Israeli authorities are sending letters to the first of 45,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees, informing them they have 30 days to accept Israel’s offer of $3,500 in cash and a one-way ticket home or to an unnamed third country in Africa, or face incarceration at Saharonim prison.

Israeli leaders have proclaimed that their tough approach–building a fence along the country’s border, denying work permits for illegal migrants, forcing them into a detention center in the desert–may ultimately save lives by dissuading migrants from attempting a perilous journey. Critics of the Israeli policy counter that a country built by refugees should be more accepting of those fleeing war, poverty and oppression.

But these days, even liberal Europe is considering a more muscular approach. The European Union began a push Monday for U.N. authorization to deploy military force in the Mediterranean to stop migrant smuggling ships.

The new measures to press the Africans to leave Israel come at a time of heightened fear among the refugees, who were stunned last month by a widely circulated video allegedly showing three Eritreans who left Israel killed by Islamic State militants in Libya. Friends and relatives said they had traveled there in a bid to reach Europe.

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Before Israel began cracking down on African migrants a few years ago, the Africans were highly visible in bustling cities, working in kitchens and doing menial labor. There are still neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv filled with Africans. Many Israelis complained they were being “invaded.”

Israel is a nation built by Jewish refugees, and those with Jewish ancestry are encouraged, even courted, to move here and provided wide-ranging assistance. A million Russian speakers came in the 1990s, and Jews from Ethi­o­pia continue to arrive each month.

But fearful that a wave of impoverished Africans, mostly Muslims from Sudan and Christians from Eritrea, would overwhelm the Jewish nature of the state, Israel spent more than $350 million to build a 140-mile fence along its entire border with Egypt. Undocumented migrants to Israel are called “infiltrators” by the Israeli government.

The steel barrier, completed in 2013, stopped illegal entry cold: More than 10,000 Africans arrived in 2012; today almost no one attempts the trip.

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