Troubled road ahead for Israels African migrants

Israel completed the release of 1,200 African migrants from detention on Aug. 26, but has provided no plan for their return to the workforce or their families elsewhere in the country.

The migrants, most of them from Eritrea and Sudan, were released from the Holot detention center in southern Israel two weeks after Israel’s Supreme Court invalidated the state’s 20-month detention period for migrants as unconstitutional for being disproportionately long.

Following the discharge process — in which released migrants were provided with supplies, financial compensation, documentation and medical certificates for those in need — authorities gave the asylum-seekers a release letter, a sandwich and a soft drink.

African migrants leave the Holot detention center in the Negev desert on Aug. 25. photo/ap-tsafir abayov

On Aug. 23, Interior Minister Silvan Shalom banned the released migrants from working and living in Tel Aviv or Eilat, where the majority of migrants from Africa are living.

Israel Radio reported that representatives of hotels in the Dead Sea area arrived at the detention centers as the migrants were due to be released in order to recruit a few dozen people for jobs.

Anat Ovadia, spokeswoman for the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, said the release could have been a major positive move by the state, but it became negative because there was no plan for what would happen to the migrants.

Most were planning to take a bus from the detention center to Beersheva and then figure out where they could find jobs, Ovadia said.

The majority of the approximately 50,000 African migrants in Israel live in Tel Aviv. A large concentration lives in Eilat, due to the availability of jobs in the hospitality industry and because of its proximity to the Egypt border, the main point of entry into Israel. Most of Israel’s African migrants are from Eritrea or Sudan and cannot be deported due to fear that they could face persecution or because their homelands have no diplomatic relations with Israel.

On Aug. 14, the Reform movement and the New York–based Jewish refugee agency HIAS called on the Israeli government to re-examine its asylum policy for African migrants.

Noting in a press release that the groups are “longstanding friends of Israel and committed advocates for the well-being of the Jewish state,” Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs questioned why Israel approves a dramatically lower percentage of asylum applications from Eritreans and Sudanese than do other developed countries.

“We are deeply concerned because Israel currently accepts less than 1 percent of refugee claims. In other developed countries, 82 percent of Eritrean applicants and 68 percent of Sudanese applicants are recognized as refugees,” Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, said in the news release. “We urge the [Israeli] government to set an example by treating African migrants with dignity and respect.”

JTA contributed to this report.