Israel is a country of refugees. The country, founded in the aftermath of the Second World War as a natural homeland for all Jews, was created and nurtured by Jewish refugees and settlers from all over the world. However, in the latter half of 2000s, the country faced a tricky situation.
Waves upon waves of African immigrants, crossing into Israel through the Sinai Peninsula, had begun to change the face of localities in Israeli cities like Tel Aviv and Eilat. About 70 per cent of the population of Neve Shaanan, a neighbourhood in Tel Aviv and one of its most crowded areas, was made up of African immigrants.
Over 90 per cent of the African immigrants to Israel were from two countries, Eritrea and Sudan. While the Eritrean refugees were escaping the dictatorship and mandatory military service in the country, the Sudanese were fleeing the conflict raging within the country and with the neighbouring South Sudan.
The African influx into Israel peaked in 2010, with 1,300 illegal immigrants crossing into the country from the Sinai in Egypt each month. At its peak in 2012, Israel had over 60,000 African immigrants residing illegally in the country, making up over 0.7 per cent of the Jewish nation’s population.
The large number of African immigrants led to protests by locals in Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities and a survey conducted earlier this year showed that 66 per cent of Jewish Israelis supported the government moves to deport the illegal African immigrants. Half of the Israeli Arabs, who make up 20 per cent of Israel’s population, supported the government move too.
The Israeli residents seeking deportation of the illegal immigrants cited their frequent involvement in crime as the reason behind the demand. Israeli politicians defending the deportation plans too echoed the residents’ concerns. A very similar situation exists in India, with the Rohingyas being labelled as a national security threat by the Indian government.
In February, protests against the Israeli government’s plan to deport illegal immigrants were met with counter-protests in southern Tel Aviv, but the Israeli government has managed to bring down the number of illegal immigrants to approximately 39,000 since the peak.
But how did Israel manage to contain the growing numbers of illegal immigrants and even reduce them?
First and the foremost, Israel plugged its porous border with Egypt in the Sinai peninsula through which most of the African immigrants were crossing into the country. Under its Project Hourglass, Israel began building a border fence equipped with cameras, radar and motion detectors on 22 November 2010 when the immigrant influx was peaking. While the main section of the fence was completed in January 2013, the last section was completed in December that year. The estimated cost of the project was $450 million with more than 200 km of the fence laid.
The results were immediate. Only 34 African immigrants could enter Israel in the first half of 2013 compared to 9,570 in the first half of 2012.
The Israeli border fence has since evoked interest from several countries including India and the United States who are seeking to curb illegal immigration into their territories.
Second, after the infiltration had been checked, the Israeli government was looking at ways to deal with the thousands of immigrants who had already entered the country.
Following the passage of an anti-infiltration law in the Israeli Knesset, Israel built the Holot open-air detention centre for the remaining illegal immigrants in the country. Men housed in the facility had to stay inside it between 10pm and 8am although they could leave during the day, with detention up to 12 months allowed by the Israeli Supreme Court. The centre could house up to 3,360 men and it reached its capacity in December 2015.
Israel had reportedly been trying to negotiate deals with several African nations to accept the migrants from Israel in exchange for weapons and combat training.
In its latest move, the Israeli government had entered a deal with several undisclosed African nations, among them Uganda and Rwanda, who were to be paid $5,000 for each migrant they accepted from Israel. The immigrants were also offered $3,500 and a plane ticket to the African nation for their ‘voluntary departure’ from the country.
Several methods are being employed to coax the illegal immigrants into opting for the one-way ticket back to the Africa, including extra taxes on salaries and special laws for the immigrants. One of the new rules is to set aside 20 per cent of their salaries towards a fund that is released to the immigrants only after they’ve left Israel.
And the measures are working. Almost 20,000 of the illegal immigrants have already left and about 20,000 more were served with deportation notices in February this year. Illegal migrant and social activists, however, protested the government moves.
What the protests and counter-protests finally reap might be debatable, but what isn’t, is that the Israeli government has tackled the challenge of illegal immigration head-on. And as with most such cases, it is on the way to successfully achieve the target it set in the beginning. India, which deals with multitudes of illegal Rohingyas, thus has much to learn from this tiny Middle Eastern country. While the challenge is much more complex and bigger for India, as always, the Israel model is worth emulating.
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