TEL AVIV — Helen Barhat, a young woman from Eritrea, pointed to two bricks on the floor that she has saved since they were hurled into her small grocery shop by a mob that ransacked the premises last month after a raucous demonstration against African migrants.
Crouching with her hands over her head, she showed how she had cowered in a back room as the rioters swept shelves clean, smashed bottles and emptied her cash register during a rampage against African-run stores in the neighborhood.
“People tell us, ‘Go back to Eritrea, this is our country,’ ” Barhat said. Joined by friends who were sitting in the shop, she added, “If there was no one here with me now, I would close.”
On the streets of the Hatikva quarter, one of the low-income neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv where an influx of illegal African migrants has stirred unrest among residents, tension is simmering under a facade of normalcy.
A roundup of migrants from South Sudan and the deportation of more than 100 this month has left other newcomers nervous about what lies ahead and residents clamoring for more action. A poster put up last week summoned people to a demonstration outside the home of Tel Aviv’s mayor against “the concentration of the foreigners in our neighborhoods.”
“The situation is very bad,” said Merhane Melake, an Eritrean who has been in Israel for five years, as he walked home. “We don’t know what comes next and what solution they will find for us.”
About 60,000 Africans have illegally entered Israel since 2005, most of them from Eritrea and Sudan. Two recent sexual assault cases in which migrants were charged and a chorus of heated rhetoric from rightist politicians have fueled a violent backlash against the newcomers. Apartments housing migrants have been firebombed and torched, and some Africans have been assaulted on the streets.
Complaints by residents in depressed Tel Aviv neighborhoods of rising crime and a sense of insecurity brought by the migrants have prompted a government crackdown. About 400 illegal migrants, most from South Sudan, have been rounded up in this month’s sweep, and preparations are underway to hold thousands more Africans in a vast tent camp in southern Israel. The moves to deport people from South Sudan went ahead after a Jerusalem court accepted the government’s argument that conditions in that country were safe enough for their return.
The migrants — some seeking refuge from war and oppressive governments, others looking for work and a better life — have trekked through Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where many were held hostage and abused by Bedouin smugglers seeking ransom from their families. Crossing the porous desert border with Israel, the migrants have been briefly detained before being bused to Tel Aviv, where some sleep in parks and most live in cramped rented rooms in poorer sections of the city.
While Israel has committed not to deport people from Eritrea and Sudan, because of the risks they could face if they return, it has not granted them work permits or social and health benefits, leaving them in limbo. But employers have not been fined by the authorities for hiring illegal migrants, enabling many to find occasional work doing menial jobs.
Because the majority of migrants have group protection from deportation, their cases are not reviewed by the Israeli authorities to determine whether they can receive refugee status. And among those who can apply, hardly any are recognized as refugees. According to Sabine Haddad, spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority, out of 7,000 applications for refugee status in the past three years, 16 have been granted.
Tensions over the presence of the migrants have been stoked by rightist politicians. In a speech at last month’s Hatikva neighborhood protest, Miri Regev, a parliament member from the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, called the Africans “a cancer in our body.”
Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who has promised to clear out all the migrants, told the Maariv newspaper in a recent interview that they were creating “a state within a state” and that “most of the people coming here are Muslims who think that this country doesn’t belong to us, to the white man.”
Netanyahu, who asserts that the newcomers are economic migrants looking for jobs, has outlined a multi-pronged effort to deter and deport them, including a fence going up along the border with Egypt, stiff fines for employers of illegal migrants and removal of those Africans who can be sent back to their home countries in line with international conventions. Under an amended law, infiltrators can be detained without charges for up to three years.
“If we don’t stop the entry, the problem, whose extent now is 60,000 illegal infiltrators, could easily develop to 600,000, which would flood the country and, to a large degree, nullify our character as a Jewish and democratic state,” Netanyahu said at a meeting of his cabinet last month.
In a television interview, Yishai described the moves to deport the foreigners as an act of national self preservation, to maintain Israel’s Jewish majority. “If we wouldn’t do it, we wouldn’t have a country,” he said.
But critics of government policy argue that while many countries seek to curb illegal immigration, Israel has failed to put in place an adequate system for determining which of the newcomers should be recognized as refugees and granted asylum, leaving them all without basic services and the means to support themselves.
The critics note that several Western countries have far higher rates of recognizing refugees. According to figures for 2011 compiled by the U.N. Refugee Agency, 74 percent of Eritreans and 71 percent of Sudanese who sought asylum were recognized as refugees in other countries.
“The policy for years has been that we want to preserve the Jewish state, so we don’t want to accept foreigners,” said Anat Ben-Dor, a lawyer with the Refugee Rights Clinic at Tel Aviv University. “That’s the basis, and everything stems from that. . . . The system operates mainly to reject refugee applications.”
Israel was founded as a haven for Jewish refugees, and the collective memory of Jewish persecution should dictate a more tolerant policy toward the migrants, said Moshe Halbertal, professor of Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“This is a conflict between the Jewish state and the Jewish past,” he said. “The question of how many people we can absorb is not the only one we should ask ourselves. We now have a moral and political responsibility, it has landed on our doorstep, and we should rally international public opinion to find a solution with other nations, like we’ve mobilized them on the Iranian issue.”