View into the Sinai Peninsula from Israeli side of its border fence. Flickr/The Israel Project. Some rights reserved
Since 2006 thousands of Africans, mostly Eritreans and Sudanese, have fled their country escaping conflict, human rights abuses and destitution. They move to the Sudanese refugee camps where many are kidnapped by traffickers and delivered to Bedouin criminal gangs in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, subjecting the refugees to sexual and violent abuse, while ransom payments are demanded from their families.
The majority of those victims abused in the Sinai who have now been freed, reside in Israel, who alongside those African migrants who have paid smugglers to take them to Israel, now make up an immigrant population of 60,000. Israel’s response to the influx of Africans has been to label the migrants as “infiltrators” and a direct threat to the future of Israel as a Jewish state, reinforcing its seige mentality.
To maintain the state’s Jewish ethno-religious character, Israel has implemented a two-step solution to their non-Jewish African problem. The first step has been to eliminate the growth of African migrants entering Israel through the Sinai Peninsula by building a 240km border fence with Egypt. The second step has been to clear Israel of those Africans already inside.
The results of Israel’s border fence have been statistically impressive with a mere 34 people entering Israel illegally in the first half of 2013 - compared to nearly 10,000 people in the first six months of 2012, a decrease of more than 99%. Whilst Israel does have a right to control its borders, its fence is a violation of refoulement - an international human rights and refugee law which stipulates that anyone seeking asylum must not be rejected at the border or forcibly returned until their refugee claim has been processed. By pushing asylum-seekers back into the Sinai, Israel is effectively condemning them to further abuse by traffickers and Egyptian forces that have previously attacked asylum-seekers. In Cairo in 2006, dozens were killed as they protested for refugee rights.
The knock-on effect of Israel’s border fence has been the opening of new migrant routes. African asylum-seekers are now increasingly heading to the Mediterranean, initially coming through Libya before being trafficked to Malta, Lampedusa and Sicily, which act as a springboard into the rest of Europe. The recent rebellion of 500 African migrants who stormed Spain’s North African enclave in Melilla, and the rescuing of 4,000 migrants in Italian waters over a four day period, suggests that by tightening the noose in the Sinai, Israel has simply shifted the burden elsewhere.
The “second stage” of Israel’s conquest to rid the state of African infiltrators is rooted in the recently amended Anti-Infiltration Law which permits the imprisonment of asylum-seekers for one year without trial, followed by the threat of indefinite detention in a specially built internment camp in the Negev desert, holding 3,000 inmates. Restricting the freedom of asylum-seekers by requiring them to attend roll-call three times a day, whilst also refusing to process their refugee applications, Israel’s Anti-Infiltration Law is an affront to the UN’s 1951 refugee convention, which Israel has signed, and it is a clear illustration of an insatiable right-wing quest to remove any demographic threat to the Jewish majority within Israel.
For the tens of thousands of Africans not in detention, the Israeli government, in conjunction with religious figures and media outlets, have orchestrated a hate campaign against the non-Jewish African people. The campaign has provided ideological support for the dehumanisation and racial persecution of the migrants, which has consisted of being labelled as a “cancer in our body” by MK Miri Regev, branded as 'rapists' and 'carriers of disease', restricted from working and prohibited from access to health and welfare services, whilst being subjected to racially incited attacks which culminated in the firebombing of a school for African children. As noted by Max Blumenthal in his book Goliath, “in modern day Israel, the African refugee has occupied a similar role as the devious Jew in Weimar-era Nazi propaganda.”
Israel has refused to accept the multicultural composition of its society as this goes directly against its desire for a Jewish state, but history and globalisation has shown us that its Zionist aspirations are not sustainable in this regard. Israel has welcomed millions of Jewish immigrants since its foundation, but has only given refugee status to 1% of those African asylum-seekers currently in Israel when in the rest of the world 64% of Sudanese and 84% of Eritreans (the largest African demographic groups in Israel) that request asylum receive refugee status. This is a clear illustration of Israel’s fear of the arrival of the first large group of immigrants to its land who are non-Jews.
Instead of dehumanising refugees and imposing new restrictions designed to shift the burden elsewhere, we must recognise that the problems refugees face can only be tackled through universal and regional co-ordination, as well as heartfelt national efforts. Israel must adhere to international law regarding refoulement and the treatment of refugees, whilst it must also seek to build closer ties with the African Union to prosecute Sudanese and Egyptian traffickers, and ensure safe repatriation for people who have fled the darkest of evils.