Israel aims to deport 5,000 Eritrean asylum seekers by the end of the year. An emergency ministerial committee set up on Sunday, following fierce clashes between rival groups of Eritreans in Tel Aviv the previous day, decided on a widespread crackdown against Eritrean migrants, including detentions without trial, revoking work permits and allocating more funds to deport members of the community to a third country.
The committee tasked the foreign ministry with finding countries that might agree to admit the migrants Israel wishes to deport. “Every sum of money needed to guarantee maximum removal of infiltrators from Israel should be allocated,” said foreign minister Eli Cohen.
The riots between supporters of the Eritrean government and anti-regime protesters that erupted in the poorer neighbourhoods of southern Tel Aviv has put the issue of Israel’s asylum seekers back on the political agenda.
For prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud and many of the other right-wing and religious parties that make up the current coalition, the issue was seen as a vote-winner in the elections last November. Populist promises to deport the migrants, or at least to disperse them around the country, were trumpeted but the complicated issue was shunted to the side, along with most other problems, as the country became obsessed with the government’s plan to overhaul the judiciary – seen by the opposition as endangering Israeli democracy.
Some 18,000 asylum seekers from Eritrea have entered Israel, most on foot via the Egyptian Sinai, and remain in legal limbo. Most claim they were fleeing danger, persecution and compulsory military conscription. However, Israel has refused almost all asylum requests, suspecting that the newcomers are economic migrants. The religious parties are wary of all non-Jewish newcomers, seeing them as a threat to Israel’s Jewish majority.
In response to the influx of Africans Netanyahu prioritised the construction of a 245km security fence stretching from the Red Sea resort of Eilat to the Gaza–Israel border in one of the largest projects in Israel’s history. Since completion of the fence in 2013 the number of African migrants arriving has been reduced to a trickle.
Government supporters were quick to blame Saturday’s riot, in which some 170 Eritreans and police were injured – some from gunfire – on the high court, which has overturned a number of measures proposed by the previous governments against the migrants. The coalition hopes the claims will boost support for curbing the powers of the courts ahead of the start of the Knesset winter session next month.
However, most of the measures overturned by the courts were relatively minor, pertaining to long-term incarceration of African migrants.
Ironically, the only comprehensive scheme to tackle the problem was both drawn up and overturned by Netanyahu. In 2018 he presented a plan under which half the asylum seekers in Israel, more than 16,000, would leave for Italy, Germany, Canada and other countries. The others would remain in Israel, and arrangements would be made for them to leave voluntarily. After heralding the “unprecedented agreement” in a televised news conference, Netanyahu returned home, read fierce attacks on social media by other right-wing politicians who criticised the fact that not all the migrants were leaving, and promptly shelved the plan.