Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israel Defense Forces on Thursday provided exaggerated figures and threatening estimates about the African refugees seeking shelter in Israel. A review of some official data, presented by international organizations specializing in the matter, reveals a slightly different reality. In fact, it appears that some of the figures have been blown out of proportion by the authorities.
The prime minister spoke Thursday about a "big wave" of refugees, who are "causing socioeconomic and cultural damage and are threatening to bring us down, back to a third-world level. They occupy the weakest Israelis' workplaces."
He added. "We have turned into the only first world country which can be reached by foot from the third world."
Netanyahu did not provide figures supporting the gloomy prophecy, but according to data compiled by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which was shocked by the prime minister's remarks, there is a total of 18,000 refugees and shelter seekers in Israel (about 70% of whom came from Sudan and Eritrea, while the rest arrived in small groups from other countries).
For the sake of comparison, Chad – which has only a few more residents than Israel (and is far from the definition of a "first world country") – had absorbed 311,000 Sudanese refugees so far. In Uganda there are 990,000 shelter seekers today, and in Sudan itself – 760,000. In fact, the UN stresses, a large majority of the African refugees are currently in the continent of Africa itself.
Watching breached border (Photo: Ariel Jerozolimski)
An examination of much more developed countries shows there is no reason to panic. In Germany, for example, there are 582,735 refugees from African countries. In the United States there are 279,548. Norway, whose population is smaller than Israel's, has absorbed twice as many refugees – 36,000. Sweden, which is only slightly bigger, granted a refugee status and full social rights to 77,000 Africans in recent years.
In Israel, by the way, only 170 people have been granted a refugee status. The rest are here as temporary residents (if they're lucky enough) or illegal residents.
The United Nations and the refugee aid organizations raised an eyebrow in wonder in light of the grim predictions, noting that three years ago they had warned of 300,000 Sudanese waiting to arrive in Israel. At the moment, the number of Sudanese residing in Israel is far from that figure.
But the biggest gap appears to between the intelligence estimate released Thursday, which pointed to two million refugees in Egypt seeking to reach Israel, and the real figures. According to the UNHCR, the number of refugees in Egypt totals only 45,000 – less than 5% of the intelligence estimate.
'Refugees helped Israel flourish'
The Knesset's Internal Affairs Committee is expected in the coming weeks to discuss a Defense Ministry bill aimed at preventing the entry of refuge seekers. The refugees' aid organizations say that the exaggerated introduction of the "threat" by the prime minister and IDF is aimed at preparing the ground and gaining public support for the approval of the law.
The organizations aiding the refugees continue to reject the claims that most shelter seekers in Israel are not really refugees but people looking for work.
"Those entering now are mainly refugees from Darfur, who are suffering from an ongoing grave situation in their country," says Sharon Harel, a representative for the UNHCR. "The border had been breached for years, and yet millions did not enter as (the authorities) are trying to warn today.
"We must distinguish between populations in need of protection and other populations. The refugees' populations come with special needs, and if they listen to them and provide them with proper employment, it can only help, as there are many professionals and university graduates among them."
The aid organizations also reject the prime minister's attempt to blame the refugees for Israel's social; problems.
"This is very dangerous from a moral and political point of view," says Dr. Dalia Tzabar of Tel Aviv University, a migration researcher. "Xenophobia has already led to very difficult places in the past.
"If Israel thinks the border is breached, its Israel's right to build a fence. We can see from past experience that a mass deportation of foreigners did not improve the State's situations. We have yet to hear about terrorists discovered among the refugees, and as long as the 'revolving door' policy is discovered in terms of foreign workers, the refugees cannot be blamed for all the social problems in this country."
Attorney Yonatan Berman, a legal advisor for the Hotline for Migrant Workers, noted in a conversation with Ynet that the State of Israel had already absorbed much bigger waves of Jewish immigrants in the past, from countries defined as economically and socially weak, but succeeded nonetheless.
"We find it difficult to understand the claim about turning into a third world country," he said. "Israel managed to deal with the migrants, and it helped the country flourish."
Mayoral candidate: Put an end to Sudanese
The prime minister mentioned in his remarks specific places "filled" with refugees in the past few years – Arad, Eilat and south Tel Aviv. It should be mentioned that the southern cities of Arad and Eilat reached this situation mostly because of an Interior Ministry decision, dubbed "the Gedera-Hadera procedure", which forced the refugees to remain in the unemployment-stricken periphery – before it was cancelled by the interior minister.
In Arad, where thousands of Sudanese refugees are concentrated and have become a main part of the population, they have a political issue indeed, and many in the southern city agree with the prime minister's remarks.
The Sudanese occupy many workplaces in the city, and the nearby hotels in the Dead Sea area prefer to employ cheap and available manpower as well.
Arad residents protest presence of Sudanese in city, this summer (Photo: Herzel Yosef)
According to Tali Plokskub, a former city councilmember who is now running for the position of mayor, "The matter of the Sudanese requires special treatment. We are glad the matter has come up. People must understand that there is a problem and that someone must find a solution to the problem.
"And it's not just about Arad. After the Gedera-Hadera procedure was cancelled, we felt a slight drop in their numbers, and that's natural. We must appoint a special team with the government and reach an agreement on the evacuation of Sudanese from the city. The agreement must include two components: The number of refugees leaving the city must be fixed; there must slowly be as fewer refugees in Arad as possible. And the absorption of new refugees must not be allowed in order to prevent a 'revolving door'. We must put an end to Sudanese in Arad."
After the decisive ruling, she moderates the message somewhat. "Nonetheless, we must remember these are human beings we are talking about. It is our duty as Jews to be sensitive and not to give up. But they also know they cannot stay in Arad forever."
According to Arad resident Benny Ben-Shushan, "The employers in hotels favor them over local residents. They harm the population. They walk around in the city center, drinking alcohol and acting violently. The public's sense of security has been damaged. We have one commercial center here in the city, and every night they walk around here and drink alcohol. This phenomenon must be eradicated."
Ilana Curiel contributed to this report