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How we got here: The story of Israel’s African migrant crisis

The roots of the violent confrontation in Tel Aviv that left 170 people wounded go back to the 2005 crackdown on African migrants in Cairo.

Eritrean asylum seekers clash with Israeli police in South Tel Aviv, Sept. 2, 2023. Photo by Omer Fichman/Flash90.
Eritrean asylum seekers clash with Israeli police in South Tel Aviv, Sept. 2, 2023. Photo by Omer Fichman/Flash90.

The recent violent political riot in Tel Aviv between warring factions of Eritrean asylum-seekers sent shock waves through Israeli society.

“We were absolutely appalled by the violence that we saw, to see such things in broad daylight in Tel Aviv seemed like an alternate universe,” Tamar Greenberg, a Tel Aviv resident who witnessed the riot, told JNS. “I was truly afraid for my safety,” she added.

The riots broke out on Saturday as proponents and opponents of the Eritrean government clashed in an incident sparked by a cultural event hosted by the Eritrean Embassy to celebrate 30 years of Eritrean independence from Ethiopia. As a result of the riot, over 170 people were injured, including 49 police officers. This episode is only the most recent chapter in a long-standing political battle over the status of an over 30,000-strong population of African migrants currently living in Israel. 

In 2005, the Egyptian government violently cracked down on a migrant demonstration in Cairo, resulting in the arrest and injury of hundreds of asylum-seekers. As word spread of potentially more fertile grounds to the north, these migrants, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, began to trickle across the porous Israeli-Egyptian border. What began as a trickle soon turned into a flood as tens of thousands of migrants began rushing across Israel’s border, all claiming political asylum. 

This wave continued for the next few years as Israel’s government mostly ignored the problem, allowing the migrants to work low-skill jobs and to begin establishing large communities in the southern neighborhoods of Tel Aviv. The influx of African migrants continued until it led to public outcry as south Tel Aviv deteriorated economically and migrant numbers swelled to as high as 60,000. In 2010 the government began working on a fence along the Israel-Egypt border, which was completed by 2012, thereby bringing further illegal crossings to near zero. 

With the border fence built, the government faced a new problem: What to do with the migrants already in Israel?

“Under international law, Israel is obligated to not forcefully deport people who are seeking refugee status, unless their asylum claims are deemed insufficient,” Yehonatan Abramson, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, told JNS. The government has so far declined to process most of the migrants’ cases, with government officials in the past saying such efforts would “require massive logistical investments and not be in the interest of Israel.”

Instead, from 2012 onwards Israel adopted a policy of “willful deportation,” with migrants being offered $3,500 to relocate to third-party African countries such as Uganda and Rwanda. By 2015 the government had ramped up its efforts, adopting a policy of forced deportation with economic aid for African migrants, or alternatively indefinite detention in facilities in Israel’s Negev desert. Between 2012 and 2015, the government cut down the number of African migrants in Israel by over 50%.

In the aftermath of the new “forceful deportation” policy, the government was taken to court by six human-rights advocacy groups over its alleged violation of international law. The case eventually reached the high court, with a final ruling banning the use of forceful deportation, but allowing the government to continue deporting migrants with financial aid to third-party countries or to detain them for a maximum of 60 days. 

This led to a mass outcry from the right-wing-led coalition, which claimed the court was tying the government’s hands and vastly overstepping its jurisdiction. Gilad Erdan, the public security minister at the time, said of the decision, “The policy will never be effective since the infiltrator obviously will prefer to sit 60 days in jail and remain in Israel than to move to Rwanda or Uganda.”

Aryeh Deri, then minister of justice, said the court was ignoring the rights of “the residents of south Tel Aviv and other cities whose lives have become impossible.”

Then-Supreme Court president Miriam Naor, meanwhile, said the court was acting “within its mandate to protect human rights.”

In 2018 there were new developments in the migrant political question, as then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a deal with the United Nations Refugee Agency that would allow Israel to resettle at least half of the migrants seeking asylum in Israel in other countries. Netanyahu quickly came under pressure from the right, who criticized him for agreeing to keep even some of the migrants in Israel, and the agreement was canceled hours after being struck. 

Since then the debate has mostly centered around the ethical ramifications of deporting or integrating the African migrants. Proponents of integration claim that they are fleeing political persecution and human rights abuses in their home country and that the lessons of the Holocaust should make Israel particularly sensitive to their plight.

“These people are fleeing a dictatorship, with a leader who has held power for over 30 years. Eritrea is full of every human rights abuse from slavery to forced military conscription into brutal conditions, to political persecution. This is not just a political question but a moral one,” Abramson told JNS. 

However, the recent riots in Tel Aviv showed that the Eritrean migrant population in Israel is not monolithic; some of them in fact support the Eritrean government. Many on the right have said that African migrants should rather be seen as economic infiltrators. Prime Minister Netanyahu was himself quoted during a recent cabinet meeting saying that “they are not refugees, most of them are just looking for jobs.” The premier further added, “It is hard for me to understand why we would have a problem with those who declare that they support the regime; they certainly cannot claim refugee status.”

According to Uriel Abulof, an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Tel Aviv University and a Visiting Professor at Cornell University, this economic aspect of the migrant crisis has another angle.

“I think that the presence of the asylum-seekers in some of these communities adds to the feeling that some Israelis have of being second-class citizens,” he told JNS.

“When they see the Eritreans getting jobs that they could have gotten themselves, or taking over neighborhoods, this leads to deep feelings of resentment and abandonment by the leadership,” he said.

“On the other hand, there are definitely more nuances to the story, and you have a complicated political game being played for a very long time now that has left large groups of people, both asylum seekers and Israelis, in a form of limbo for decades,” he added.

In the aftermath of Saturday’s riot, 53 foreign nationals were detained and placed in administrative detention. This effort was championed by Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.

“I congratulate the police and law-enforcement officials for implementing the policy on the ground,” said Ben-Gvir. “We will not give up and we will act with full force against rioters in the State of Israel,” he added.

At time of publication the fate of the detainees remained undecided, however, there have been calls from the highest echelons of the Israeli government for immediate deportations.

In opening Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said that he “would like this forum to prepare a complete and updated plan to repatriate all of the remaining illegal infiltrators from the State of Israel; this is the purpose of our meeting today.”

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