TEL AVIV (JTA) — With hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring across the borders of the European Union, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a landmark change in policy last month: Germany would begin to accept Syrian refugees, no matter how they got there.
Four days later, Israeli Interior Minister Silvan Shalom made a statement on the same topic, but with a different tone: Israel would do everything possible, he said, to remove migrants from its borders.
“I continue to fight, with all my effort, against the phenomenon of illegal infiltration, in light of the hundreds of thousands of infiltrators to Europe in these days and hours,” Shalom wrote Aug. 28 on Facebook, using the government’s term for migrants. “I will not relent until we reach a framework that will allow the removal of the infiltrators from Israel.”
As Europe struggles to handle the influx of migrants on its shores, the issue of illegal migrants again has risen in Israel, which has been grappling with the issue for nearly a decade. While EU policy is now being directed toward finding a way to absorb the migrants, the Israeli government is still focused on getting them out.
“Israel, in order to limit [migration], calls them infiltrators,” noted Karin Amit, head of the master’s program on immigration and social integration at Israel’s Ruppin Academic Center. “It doesn’t classify them as asylum seekers. It doesn’t expel them, but relates to them as people who aren’t supposed to be here.”
According to Israel’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority, more than 60,000 African migrants crossed into Israel illegally from Egypt between 2006 and 2012. The migrants, mostly from Eritrea, say they’re seeking asylum from a brutal dictatorship. Some 45,000 remain in the country.
But the government has viewed them as economic migrants looking for work and, with rare exceptions, has not recognized them as refugees.
In 2012, Israel built a border fence with Egypt, all but blocking illegal migration. It is now extending the fence along its eastern border with Jordan. Since 2012, the Israeli government has requested that the migrants in the country leave, giving cash grants to those who depart for their homes or some other African country. The government also has detained thousands of migrants since 2013 in Holot, a detention facility adjacent to a prison on the Egyptian border. Last month, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that detainees must be released from Holot after a maximum stay of 12 months.
“The state has a duty to foreigners, including refugees and asylum seekers,” said the court decision, issued Aug. 11. “Basic human rights aren’t denied to a person even if he enters a country illegally.”
Europe is on pace to take in approximately 600,000 migrants this year, including those who came illegally, according to EU figures. Many are fleeing Syria’s civil war. The number — less than 0.2 percent of the EU population — is proportional to Israel’s absorption in 2011 of some 17,000 refugees in a population of nearly 8 million.
When Germany announced its policy change last month, it called on other European countries to accept their share of migrants, too.
“The people granted residence rights in the EU must be distributed fairly within the Union,” the Aug. 24 statement from the German government said. “This fair distribution of the burden is not currently assured.”
But anti-immigrant sentiment runs strong in many corners of Europe, evident in the growing support for far right, anti-immigrants parties like the National Front in France, Golden Dawn in Greece and the Independence Party in the United Kingdom. In addition, the EU has come under criticism for failing to formulate a coordinated, comprehensive response to the influx of migrants coming by sea via illegal smugglers. Many migrants have died en route after being placed on overloaded, rickety boats that capsize or are abandoned by smugglers in the waters of the Mediterranean.
Thus far, southern European countries like Italy, Greece and the Balkan nations have borne much of the load of absorbing immigrants. Harrowing scenes of refugee boats capsizing in the Mediterranean Sea have pushed EU officials to address the issue and reexamine the EU’s immigration laws, which say migrants can claim asylum only in the first EU country they enter.
Advocates for asylum seekers in Israel long have called on the Jewish state to adopt the approach Germany is taking. Aid groups want the Israeli government to determine migrants’ status and allow them to live and work in Israel as long as they face danger in their home states.
“In Europe, they understand the difference between migrants and refugees,” said Sigal Rozen, the public policy coordinator for the aid group Hotline for Refugees and Migrants. “In Israel, they just define refugees as labor infiltrators. As soon as that term was established, not just with [government] decision makers but with the court system, it’s hard to convince the public that we should give room to all these labor infiltrators.”
Israel has not absorbed any refugees from Syria — a country with which it has technically been at war for decades. On Saturday, Knesset opposition leader Issac Herzog called on Israel to take in Syrian refugees. But speaking to his cabinet on Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed the notion that Israel could be a safe haven for refugees from either Syria or Africa.
“Israel is not indifferent to the human tragedy of the refugees from Syria and Africa,” Netanyahu said. “But Israel is a small country, a very small country, that lacks demographic and geographic depth. Therefore, we must control our borders, against both illegal migrants and terrorism.”
Israel has set up a field hospital on the Syrian border whose staff has treated some 1,000 Syrian wounded.
Israelis, according to polls, agree with their prime minister. In 2012, some 86 percent of Israelis said they viewed African migrants as “a danger to Israel.” European citizens, too, don’t appear to have much appetite for absorbing asylum seekers. A 2014 Pew Research Center poll showed that vast majorities in Italy, Greece, France, the United Kingdom, Spain, Poland and Germany want immigration to decrease or stay the same.
Migrants draw little support in Israel because of Israel’s concern with maintaining an overwhelmingly Jewish majority and due to security concerns. Migrants, although they comprise less than 1 percent of Israel’s population, are portrayed as adding to the demographic problem.
Anti-migrant protests have been especially strong in south Tel Aviv, where many migrants live and where longtime residents — often poor themselves — say their way of life has been upset. And Israelis fear that a porous border could bring terrorists as well as asylum seekers.
Amit of the Ruppin Center says that as the European Union continues to struggle with migrant absorption, it may move closer to Israel’s approach. On Thursday, Israeli news sites reported that Hungary and Bulgaria were in talks with an Israeli company about possibly building a border fence like Israel’s, though Amit says she doubts that countries four times Israel’s size can “hermetically seal” their borders.
“Now there’s a feeling of a flood,” Amit said. “There are voices in Europe of ‘If we let them in, more will come.’”
But she said a cultural difference may separate the German response from Israel’s. While Israel, born after the Holocaust, has remained vigilant about maintaining a Jewish majority, Germany may see the Holocaust as a reason to open its borders to victims of tragedy.
“There’s a desire to atone for what had been done,” she said. “Because of what happened before, they feel that they’re repaying a debt and they can take in foreigners. Israeli immigration policy is for people with Jewish origins.”