Israel’s African problem: An interview with Mark Regev

The full transcript of an interview with Mark Regev, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official spokesman, on the African refugee problem in Israel.

In light of the recent events concerning Sudanese refugees in Israel and the outburst of violent demonstrations in Tel Aviv, I have decided to publish an interview I conducted with Israel’s Mark Regev on April 2 to better understand the government position in regards to the African refugees in its borders.

The interview, which was conducted for an article I was writing in Rolling Stone magazine, took place shortly after a court injunction was placed on the Israeli government’s decision to begin deporting South Sudanese refugees back to their country of origin amid a deteriorating situation between Sudan and South Sudan. The interview gives good insight into how the government perceives and treats the issue of asylum seekers.



OR: Could you explain the government’s decision to deport the South Sudanese refugees?


MR: The policy is clear. Last year, I think in 2011, we had more illegal immigrants entering Israel than we had legal immigrants. And Israel is a small country; we are some 8 million people. And I think we have to deal with this issue. It would be irresponsible not to deal with this issue. The government has adopted a 4-tier strategy of dealing with the issue of illegal immigration.

One is of course what David sent you [he is referring to a link that was given to me by his staff], the issue of the border fence. Two, is making it much more difficult for illegal immigrants to work in Israel. Ultimately the Israeli economy is a first world economy and that serves as a magnet to people who are coming from many places, but specifically Africa. Thirdly, the prime minister has talked about a detention center to be established for illegal immigrants; to make sure their needs are taken care of, that they have housing and healthcare and other services, until…you know… humanitarian treatment.

And finally, is deportation to their countries of origin. That’s the four-tier process. Now we can’t ignore this issue, we have to deal with it. We can be flexible in the way we deal with it but we are not going to solve anything by ignoring the issue.


OR: One of your orders is saying to prevent them from work because Israel is a first world country and therefore it attracts people looking for work, so…?


MR: You got to remember what is the absurdity of the situation. Let’s say refugees… I shouldn’t say refugees, very few of them are refugees. Illegal immigrants who are coming to Israel are not coming from their country directly. They are coming through third-countries, where they are not persecuted. It’s clear they are coming here because of the economic magnet.


OR: Well according to refugees that I am using for my story and that I spoke to, they were indeed persecuted in 3rd countries. The conditions in Egypt for example…?


MR: To be fair, Israel is the only democracy in the region. Does that mean that a hundred million people can come to Israel and declare themselves legitimate refugees?


OR: I am not sure.


MR: Well, I am asking you according to your logic, sir.


OR: Umm… no obviously not.


MR: Alright. This is a real problem we can’t ignore it.


OR: But, the South Sudanese refugees are 700 people not hundreds of millions.


MR: As the Prime Minister said, firstly we can be flexible with the implementation and secondly, we are waiting for the judicial process. Israel is a country where there is rule of law. We can’t ignore the problem and hope it will go away. We are a very small country. We are a successful democracy, and we cannot be the solution for the region and beyond, for all the ills. Those solutions have to be found in greater democratization in other countries.


OR: Do the 700 south Sudanese refugees living in Israel’s borders pose such a deep threat to the state that they should be deported?


MR: Once again there is a four-tier strategy….


OR: Right, I understand that but I am talking about these 700 refugees?


MR: We can be flexible on implementation of that four-tier strategy and of course we respect the decisions of the courts. I can’t go beyond that at this stage.


OR: Ok. And also you mentioned the detention center that is to take care of the needs of refugees?


MR: According to our legal system if someone is in your country illegally you cannot prosecute them for working illegally and you cannot prosecute employers, which is more important, if they don’t have a place where they can live because then they don’t have—according to our legal people—they don’t have the ability to live and feed themselves, to take care of themselves, to find dwellings and so forth. The idea of the detention center is so we can enforce laws against employers who are illegally employing them, because the detention center—which will have the highest international standards—will deal with the issue: will they have a place to stay, will they be provided with food and medical care and education for children, if need be.  And social services because obviously some of these people have had very traumatic experiences, and so forth. And only with the detention center can we—according to our Supreme Court and our judiciary—can we legally enforce the ban on work. That’s the only way to deal with the magnet. If people can come to Israel illegally, and make a hundred times what they can make in Africa, the magnet is not going to go away. We have to be successful in enforcing labor laws.


OR: So you do not believe the majority of these people are in fact fleeing crisis situations in their own country?


MR: According to our own investigation only a fraction of 1 percent of these people qualify as bona fide refugees and then of course they have the right to stay here indefinitely until they can go to a third country. But the overwhelming majority are illegal economic migrants.


OR: This is still contrary to their status elsewhere where 85 percent of Eritreans get refugee status and I think around 50 percent of Sudanese?.


MR: Once again, first of all these people are coming from third countries. They are not coming directly.


OR: Well the ones that are in the US are also coming from third countries, no?


MR: And they are automatically given refugee status in the United States?


OR: No, but they are at least going through a process in which I guess 85 percent of Eritreans are getting refugees status and 50 percent of Sudanese, or South Sudanese,  not a fraction of 1 percent?


MR: Our studies… in our studies… in what we have been doing only a fraction of 1 percent qualify as refugees.


OR: And those Eritreans and South Sudanese are capable of going through the RSD process?


MR: What’s the RSD process, sorry?


OR: The Refugee Status Determination process?


MR: Obviously some of them have, you should speak to the Ministry of Interior. They know more about the details of that process.


OR: Thank you very much, I appreciate your comments.