Their presence has created an acute dilemma for Israel, a state founded as a haven for Jewish refugees that now finds itself coping with an influx of foreigners that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has warned could threaten the nation’s Jewish character.
Having escaped deadly attacks by government-backed militias in Darfur, after a long trek through the Sinai and a perilous border crossing that risked gunfire from Egyptian border guards, Ibrahim, 34, said his goals are simple.
“I want to get a job, go to school and grow in the future,” he said, smiling. “This is the beginning.”
There are nearly 34,000 African migrants in Israel, according to the most recent official statistics. Many are concentrated in Tel Aviv, where they live in cramped apartments or shelters in poor neighborhoods where there is resentment against the newcomers’ presence.
At a demonstration in south Tel Aviv last week, protesters marched by African street vendors selling used clothes and shoes, calling for the migrants’ expulsion. “Return them now,” signs carried by the demonstrators said. “If we keep silent we will become strangers in our own neighborhoods.”
The controversy over the African migrants, who have changed the face of some areas of south Tel Aviv, touches on core questions of Israel’s self-definition as both a Jewish and democratic state. A nation of immigrants created as a shelter for Jews after the Holocaust and an active participant in drafting the postwar U.N. convention on refugees, it is now pondering ways to stem a flow of people who say they are fleeing persecution in their own countries.
In a surge that began in 2007, hundreds of migrants have been sneaking across the border from Egypt each month, some after harrowing journeys in which Bedouin smugglers in Sinai have imprisoned them for lengthy periods and subjected them to torture and rape to extort high ransom payments from their families.
After crossing the border, the migrants are taken by the army and held in a detention center in southern Israel for several weeks before being put on buses to Tel Aviv, where they are left to fend for themselves.
Israel has granted special status to those arriving from Eritrea, Sudan and more recently from Ivory Coast, who are protected from deportation because of threats in their home countries. But they have no work permits and are not covered by state health and social services. Still, the authorities have not taken action against employers who collect the migrants from street corners for menial day jobs, such as cleaning work, dishwashing in restaurants or construction.