The Israeli government says a hardening of migration policy has caused a 90 percent drop in arrivals in the last few months, from around 2,000 in May to 122 in September.
Under an updated Anti-Infiltration law passed in January, all illegal border crossers are labelled “infiltrators” and can be detained for up to three years.
But while all agree that the number of asylum seekers and migrants is down, some NGOs say Israel is ignoring its responsibilities under international refugee law.
Israel is building a 240km fence along the border with Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula at a cost of US$360 million. Equipped with cameras and motion detectors, it is due for completion at the end of this year.
“When I think of the chances they will be killed, tortured, raped and then to reach the fence and be turned back - I will say to them no,” says Dawit, 27, a newly arrived asylum seeker from Eritrea who gave only his first name.
He crossed the border just before the new measures came into effect. Since his arrival he has not found a job and eats at a soup kitchen.
The fence is part of a series of measures by the Israeli government, including the building and extension of detention centres in the Negev desert, limitations on wire transfers by migrant workers, and deportations, which are designed both to make life tougher for the country’s 60,000 African asylum-seekers, and deter those thinking of joining them. The Israeli government says the measures are vital for the country’s security.
For those that find a way around the fence, they face up to three years in detention: NGOs estimate that 3,500 irregular migrants are already being held in detention at Sa'aronim and Ketziot prisons in the southern Negev.
The capacity of these detention centres will grow to 5,400, while two more centres are being built - Nahal Raviv and Sadot - which together can hold up to 5,000 migrants, mainly in tents, according to information from the Interior Ministry.
The centres are preoccupying not just new arrivals from Africa, but current residents like Alicia, a 23-year-old Eritrean asylum seeker, who only gave her first name. She told IRIN she rarely sleeps at night.
''I wonder what they will do with all those tents they are building, I am in Tel Aviv trying to make my life but I think there will come a day when they will take also the free ones and put them there [in the detention centres].''
Hardening the line
Before the toughening of Israel’s migration policy, African migrants found it relatively easy to cross the low fence that formerly marked the border with Egypt.
Bedouin tribes often helped smuggle migrants and asylum seekers for a hefty fee; at times not only charging money but holding the Africans to ransom while torturing them and raping the women.
But that pattern seems to be changing now the new fence covers almost the entire length of the border. The Interior Ministry says the fence has dramatically brought down the number of “infiltrators” in recent months.
Hardening public opinion
The Anti-Infiltration law was originally passed in 1954 as a way to deal with armed Palestinian attackers crossing the border to attack Israel.
In recent years several attempts were made to update the law to deal with the rising number of African migrants and asylum seekers - around 60,000 of whom have arrived since 2005.
Until recently such attempts were unpopular but in 2012 public opinion has turned against migrants, encouraged by hardline politicians.
This year there have been violent demonstrations against African residents in the cities of Tel Aviv and Arad, and action taken by some parents in Eilat to block what they call “infiltrator children” from attending schools.
Shlomo Maslawi, a member of the municipal board in Tel Aviv, says the crime rate has gone up significantly since the “strangers” came.
''It is not safe to walk the streets for our children and young women. We're the real victims here and not the so-called refugees; our streets have become slums.”
But the migrants object to being labelled as a danger to society. “We're not criminals”, says Salomon, an Eritrean asylum seeker who only gave his first name. He has been sleeping in the Levinsky park in Tel Aviv for over two months.
“We have no work, Israelis are afraid of us, they call us niggers and say we make their lives miserable, but all we want to do is survive. If we cannot - then some may resort to stealing to survive but we're not a gang of robbers and rapists.”
Some NGOs say they should be given work permits. ''They are mostly law abiding and very humble people, some resort to petty theft to buy food. If the Israeli government does not give them work permits the situation will only deteriorate,'' said Sigal Rosen of the Moked- Hotline for migrant workers.
That is not the view of Interior Minister Eli Yishai.
"I would change the law so that every infiltrator is put in jail. Then he can decide whether he wants to remain imprisoned or go back to his home country,'' he was quoted as saying on the Ynet Israeli news website in August.
Human rights impacts
While everyone agrees that the number of African migrants and asylum seekers are well down, the exact explanation is disputed.
Sources in the aid community believe the drop is not due to the fence alone but also to the harsh treatment of asylum seekers by the Egyptian police and army.
That is rejected by a source with the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) serving on the border who told IRIN: “This is not true - we know that the Egyptians and the Bedouins are not treating them with kid gloves, [but] the major decline in the numbers is due to the fence. Once it is finished we expect to see even less infiltrators.”
Reserve soldiers serving on the border fence told IRIN they see “less and less” asylum seekers, though at times there are attempts at cutting down the fence. ''The [Bedouin] smugglers made good money off these people and they are thinking now of how to overcome the fence. We need to watch and see what they will do.”
But while measures to limit migration and asylum seeker arrivals may reflect local political realities, humanitarian NGOs monitoring the expansion of detention centres warn of the negative impact of the measures.
“Jailing thousands of innocent people in harsh conditions in the desert is not in Israel’s best interest and does not deal with the issue. While the government detains thousands, many are left with no status,” says a joint-statement on the issue by Assaf (an aid organization for refugees and asylum seekers in Israel) and Physicians for Human Rights.
Despite being a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Israel remains one of the most difficult countries in the world in which to claim asylum; only 157 asylum seekers have been recognized as refugees by Israel since it became a signatory to the Convention.
For more stories on migration, please visit our In-Depth Crossing into the Unknown
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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