Time to be sensible about African asylum seekers in Israel

As the Netanyahu government appears to be going forward and back and perhaps forward again on the African asylum seekers in Israel issue, it is high time for a practical fair solution.

Just to recap, a month ago the State had reached an agreement by way of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

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In return for agreeing to absorb some 16,000 African asylum seekers in Israel, the UNHCR would resettle a similar number among countries in the West. Within a day, Netanyahu reneged on the deal, bowing to pressure from his party, coalition partners and constituency based in Israel’s more deprived urban centers, particularly in south Tel Aviv.

With the deal canceled and Israel seemingly stuck now with 40,000 asylum seekers, unrealistic solutions began flowing in from both sides of the refugee matrix.

Anti-migration groups suggested mass expulsion and even returning some 25,000 Eritreans to their home country, in flagrant violation of treaties that Israel is signatory to, including the non-return (non-refoulement) of people to countries of origin where they would face severe punishment.

For their part, pro-migration groups suggest dispersing those asylum seekers that remain to various communities throughout Israel. This, too, is impractical, particularly in a year of municipal elections, where it is highly unlikely that any city mayor would volunteer to absorb even a few hundred asylum seekers.

The question remains: if the UNHCR deal moves ahead, how should Israel deal with those asylum seekers remaining in Israel? There is one practical solution that, to the best of my knowledge, as not been considered.

Why not establish a small town for African asylum seekers in Israel’s periphery but still within an hour’s drive from Israel’s center where many of the asylum seekers work in menial jobs such as street cleaning and dish washing in restaurants? Setting up such a town by constructing mobile homes is nothing new to Israel. It was tried with the mass immigration from the former USSR in the early 1990s and again with settlers after the Gaza withdrawal.

By establishing a small town for asylum seekers, the severe pressure on impoverished neighborhoods in Tel Aviv and elsewhere would be alleviated. For their part, African asylum seekers would still be able to work in city centers by way of public transport systems that could be adopted to ferry them back and forth each day. Equally important, their communities would not be broken up but would be transferred en masse to a new town. In return for agreeing to such a move, the asylum seekers would receive long-term residency status and an alleviation of the constant anxiety that the uncertainties of the past decade have caused to all.

Finally, with regard to the question of footing the bill for the establishment of such a town, it is worth considering that the the Holot Detention Center alone costs the Israel taxpayer more than NIS 100 m.

per annum. In a new town, asylum seekers would pay standardized rent to the state as well as rates and similar municipal costs.

No plan is perfect, but the idea of setting up a community for asylum seekers within reasonable traveling time from the center may be the most sensible one around right now.

The writer, a lawyer specializing in employment law and refugee issues, is a board member of the African Refugee Development Center, although this article is written in his capacity as a private citizen.