The Atlantic

African Deportations Are Creating a Religious Controversy in Israel

Thousands of vulnerable migrants may soon be deported, which many Jews see as inconsistent with their faith.
Source: Baz Ratner / Reuters

TEL AVIV—Around 9:30 p.m. on a recent weekday night, four men sat waiting on the sidewalk outside Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority office. In a broken mix of Hebrew, English, and Arabic, they told me they were waiting for it to open so they could turn in their applications for refugee status—the next morning. According to local activists, the office only processes a handful of these forms each day, so asylum seekers arrive the night before to ensure their place in line.

These men are among the roughly 40,000 African migrants who have been stuck in limbo in Israel for years. Many crossed into Israel through the Sinai desert between 2006 and 2012, according to Israel’s African Refugee Development Center, fleeing the harsh political conditions in Eritrea or genocide and war in Sudan. The Israeli government has argued that these migrants are simply in Israel looking for work. Human-rights organizations, however, claim that most or all are here out of fear of persecution in their home countries. Of more than 13,000 people who had applied for asylum as of last summer, only 10 have been recognized as refugees, according to the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an Israeli human-rights organization.

Israel isn’t alone among Western nations struggling with large-scale migration—and the backlash against it. At the height of the European migrant crisis in 2015, more than a million people applied for asylum on the continent, and the issue empowered far-right political parties in places like Germany and France. While some countries have expanded their resettlement efforts, others, including Sweden and the United States, have stepped up deportations or restrictions.

Yet, Israel’s situation is also distinctive. Its proportion of migrants is relatively small compared to Germany’s, for example, which saw asylum applications in 2016 alone—equivalent to nearly 1 percent of the German population. And unlike European countries,Israel shares a land border with Africa; many migrants attempting to reach Israel faced brutal encounters with traffickers and Egyptian security forces as they crossed the Sinai.

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