Israel policy myth #3: trying to stem a flood of migrants

To justify draconian and inhumane measures against refugees, the Israeli government claims the country is flooded by work migrants from impoverished countries. The facts do not bear this out, to put it mildly.

In Israel today, there are two classes of immigrants. One is composed of those who come under the Law of Return, which supposedly grants automatic citizenship for Jews and their immediate relatives (the myth surrounding this law will be discussed in the final installment of this series). The second class is composed, well, of everyone else.

How do they fare? Quite badly, in fact. Children who have lived in the country for the majority of their lives face deportation [Hebrew]. A mother of an infant child with Israeli citizenship nonetheless also faces deportation. Getting pregnant will cost you your visa [Hebrew], despite a High Court of Justice ruling that says otherwise (and see upcoming myth #9 on that). And soon, the first Israeli-only kindergartens in the country will be opened.

Refugees fare no better. A deaf Eritrean recently spent almost two years in jail, because his identity could not be verified. Some are imprisoned just because they require medical care, while others are incarcerated [Hebrew] without access to appropriate medical facilities. And the government is doubling down on this policy, building a huge new prison for refugees, with intentionally cramped conditions. Things have gotten so bad, that HIAS – an international Jewish organization working with asylum seekers – has scaled down its cooperation with the Israeli government [Hebrew], following a decision to arrest asylum seekers on the spot if their request is denied.

The myth of the flood

These draconian and inhumane measures are justified by the claim that Israel is flooded by work migrants from impoverished countries, who illegally enter the country and often put forward bogus claims of fleeing from persecution, in order to stay. The actual and potential numbers are so large, it is argued, that a myriad of ill consequences will follow if the tide is not stemmed: wages for low-skilled workers will be depressed, crime will soar, and the nature of the country will be irreversibly altered. The Interior Minister and his top immigration official have raised the stakes to the point of accusing NGOs assisting migrants and refugees of aiming to destroy Israel and Zionism.

The ugliness of this nativist rhetoric, particularly galling from Jews whose parents, or they themselves, came to this country as immigrants and refugees, is compounded by the magnitude of the lie it embeds. Reliable figures are hard to come by, not least because immigration authorities are among the least transparent [Hebrew] government bodies in Israel.

According to the most recent official figures [Hebrew], there are 124,168 migrants who are not citizens in Israel today. That is slightly more than 1.6% of the country’s population. But almost three-fifths of them came to work here legally, with government-issued work visas. The number of illegal migrants therefore comes to a total of less than 0.7% of the country’s population.

Of those, two thirds are asylum seekers, 90% of whom, according to reports by the state of Israel itself [pdf], are actual refugees (although the state refuses to grant them proper recognition and protection as such). Overall, according to the best official Israeli estimates, there are less than 20,000 illegal work migrants in Israel today, less than 0.3% of the population, and less than a third of the number of legal work migrants.

In comparison, the US right now has 11 million undocumented workers, or about 3.5% of its population. The proportion between them and legal migrants is 10:1, in favor of the “illegals”. That is how the numbers look for country that attracts work migrants that the government does not want to accept.

In case you were wondering whether these numbers are the result of the success of draconian measures, you need look no further than the new prison mentioned above, or the wall the government is building along the Egyptian border, at huge expense, to see that no one is letting up. This is because the figures that really matter in Israel’s immigration policy are denominated in currency units.

Nickels and Dimes

Israel needs outside labor, because as it has grown richer, fewer citizens are willing to do the less pleasant jobs in home care, agriculture and construction. After a quarter century of occupation, Israel decided 20 years ago that it wants to sever itself from the Palestinians, and has therefore gradually reduced the number of guest workers coming from the Occupied Territories.

That has forced  it to search further afield, bringing in workers who now lived far away from their homelands and families, and could not return to them every weekend or every night, as the Palestinians could. They do not just work here, they live here.

The longer they stay, the more they know and understand the country, the more confident they become in pursuing their rights and demanding better conditions. This makes them more expensive for their employers and less profitable for the firms that bring them here, and contract out their services. Much of these contractors’ profits come from the huge fees that migrants pay them in order to get their work visa. This creates a massive financial incentive for a high rate of turnover: for every expelled worker, a new one comes in, bringing in a huge new fee for his or her work visa.

Cruelty for profit

These incentives largely explain the many cruelties and outrages of Israel’s immigration policy. Expelling children and mothers of Israeli citizens makes sense because they are likelier to stay and put down roots. Refugees present much the same problem. Although Israel flouts many international laws protecting them, it is still leery of massive and blatant violations. Therefore, most of them cannot be deported while they face persecution and murder in the countries from which they flee.

That means it is harder to exploit them, and employing them comes at the expense of another worker which can bring a huge windfall to the contractor that “imports” her. So, first, Israel has decided to recognize almost no one as a refugee. In 2008-2009, 3,211 people have sought refugee status. Only 52 cases have been reviewed [Hebrew], and only three people were granted refugee status. That is less than one tenth of one percent.

Denying people refugee status, simply by not reviewing their requests, means they cannot work in the meanwhile. But if they stay, they might still work illegally, so the government has set out to make their lives a living hell. It makes entry difficult and dangerous, exposing them to heinous crimes committed by “people smugglers”. If they eventually get in, they face Kafkaesque bureaucratic hassles [pdf], intimidation, harassment and geographic delimitation. They cannot get a legal job, and are ineligible even for the most basic public services, let alone social benefits.

A self-reinforcing cycle

It would be immensely surprising if this traumatized population, officially marginalized and denied any legal way to subsist in a foreign country, strikingly different from the places they came from, would prosper. Reliable information is, as I noted, hard to come by. Anecdotal evidence suggests many refugees beat the odds, even opening successful businesses employing Israeli citizens [pdf pop-up]. Many do not, although aside from the occasional nuisance, it seems most of the price for maladjustment is paid by other refugees.

Nonetheless, being black, they are highly visible in Israel and heavily concentrated geographically in several poor neighborhoods in the country’s center, the only places where they can find both affordable housing and (illegal) employment. The long-suffering residents of these neighborhoods are then cynically exploited by officials [Hebrew] and extremists. Their xenophobia is enflamed, both to justify the harsh immigration policy, and to exploit the refugees as scapegoats for social ills that existed long before they came. Ingeniously, policy is justified by the very ill effects it had created and bolstered by the hate it has enflamed; and one of the newest Israel policy myths lives on.

Another new myth, directly related to this one, as the above passage suggests, will be explored in the next post of these series, which will examine myth #4: “Israel’s social safety net is better than that in the US.”

Read more in this series:

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Israel policy myth #2: Separation between Jews and Arabs is not racist
Coming Next
Israeli policy myth #4: Israel’s social safety net is better than that in the US

All previous posts in Top 10 Israeli Policy Myths:

Introducing: Top ten myths about Israeli policy
Myth #1: Security is our first concern
Myth #2: Separation between Jews and Arabs is not racist