Does Israel Have an Immigrant Problem?

Thousands are flocking to the Jewish state for work. But increasingly, they are becoming a political football.

It's Saturday night in Tel Aviv, and a crowd of Filipino women make their way down Neve Sha'anan Street, a charmless pedestrian arcade lined with money-changers, calling-card centers, Africans selling stolen, bootlegged, or junk merchandise, and storefront bars where patrons lounge around plastic tables covered in empty beer bottles. The women, dressed in tight jeans, miniskirts, and slinky tops, walk past the "Kingdom of Pork" butcher shop and into the massive, grime-encrusted central bus station. Their destination is the Bahay Kubu, a dance club located on the third level. Tonight is the Ms. Filipino-Israel beauty pageant, an annual event hosted by Charlene, a bashful and giggly transvestite. During the week, Charlene is James, a nursing-home employee and one of hundreds of thousands of foreign workers in Israel.

The figures are fuzzy and politically contested, but the most reliable estimates place the number of such workers around 300,000. There are an additional 20,000 Africans -- primarily Eritreans and Sudanese -- who claim to be refugees from persecution. The overwhelming majority of foreign workers are like James: economic migrants from China, India, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and elsewhere who arrived in Israel on temporary visas to take jobs in the agriculture and construction industries or as caregivers for the elderly. According to the Israeli government, 30 percent of foreign workers are in the country illegally. Eighty percent of the foreign population lives in south Tel Aviv, crammed into slouching tenements near the central bus station.

The presence of a large, non-Jewish population in the Jewish state stirs great unease. In November, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz blamed foreign workers for a rise in unemployment and a "widening of social gaps"; the mayor of Eilat, Meir Yitzhak Halevi, recently called them a "burden on the welfare authorities." He added: "They consume alcohol and have introduced cases of severe violence." The situation is routinely described in the media as a ticking social time bomb. The military estimates that as many as 1 million Africans could try to cross into Israel (though the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees puts the number at 45,000).

Responding to such concerns, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Jan. 10 that Israel will build two fences along the Egyptian border -- one around Eilat, the other near Gaza -- in the hope of staunching the flow of "infiltrators and terrorists." Construction is expected to take several years, and the fence will be entirely on Israeli territory. Netanyahu also directed the Justice Ministry to formulate a plan to sanction businesses that hire illegal immigrants. "This is a strategic decision to ensure the Jewish and democratic character of the state of Israel," Netanyahu said. "Israel will remain open to war refugees but we cannot allow thousands of illegal workers to infiltrate into Israel via the southern border and flood our country." There is reason to be skeptical. For two decades, Israeli policy toward foreign workers and refugees, has been widely regarded as a complete failure.

Foreign workers first arrived in Israel in the late 1980s to address a sudden labor shortage caused by the outbreak of the first Intifada. Following the Six Day War in 1967, Israel issued work permits to Palestinians for menial, low-wage jobs, primarily in construction and agriculture. By 1987, the year the Intifada began, Palestinians comprised nearly 8 percent of the Israeli labor force. The uprising, which prevented Palestinians from traveling back and forth to jobs inside Israel, threw the economy into crisis. In response, the Israeli government began to import workers from abroad. By 2000, foreign workers comprised 12 percent of the Israeli workforce.

"From the government's perspective, there was a closed circle, with clear procedures and rules dictating each workers' entry and exit," Israel Drori told me when I visited his spartan, linoleum-tiled office at Tel Aviv University, where he is a professor of business. The number of foreign workers was supposed to rise and fall according to supply and demand, Drori explained, but the government proved unable or unwilling to effectively regulate the process -- a history he recounts in detail in his book, Foreign Workers in Israel. Many workers fell into the illegal labor market. Others arrive on tourist visas and never leave. Exploitation is rampant. "The state has been completely incompetent," Drori said. "It is really a disgrace." And whereas Palestinians went home to Gaza or the West Bank at the end of the day, the foreign workers -- like in Europe, like in the United States -- began to settle down.

"This fence has nothing to do with foreign workers," Yohannes Bayu told me in a telephone interview. "Those crossing the Egyptian border aren't foreign workers; they are asylum-seekers." Bayu is executive director of the African Refugee Development Center, an Israeli NGO that advocates for the rights of asylum-seekers.

The main problem, Bayu believes, is that Israel refuses to clarify who is a refugee, even though it is obligated to do so as a signatory to the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. But as of last year, according to Bayu, only 180 asylum-seekers were officially recognized by the Israeli government as refugees. The rest wait in limbo. The fence will, however, block the ability of refugees to escape from Egypt. "The treatment in Egypt is harsh and inhumane. If someone is caught by the Egyptians on the border, they will be imprisoned, tortured, or killed," Bayu told me matter-of-factly. "I recognize Israel as a Jewish state," he continued, "but Israel is also part of the world community and it has an obligation to deal with refugees."

Late last week, before a tour of the border area with Egypt, Netanyahu warned that a "surge of refugees ... are causing socioeconomic and cultural damage" that threatens to turn Israel into a Third World country. The problem, Netanyahu explained, "is the very success of our economy, which today is included among the developed economies around the world and has emerged out of this crisis better than most countries. Some of the countries and economies in our proximity are suffering great hardships, which in turn is increasing our attractiveness and is starting to draw populations from less-developed countries." The result, he said, is that foreign workers are taking the jobs of the "weakest Israelis." But as the Hotline for Migrant Workers, an Israeli NGO, points out, only 3,000 Africans came into Israel from Egypt last year. During that same period, Netanyahu's government issued 120,000 visas to foreign workers. The proposed fence, in other words, will do little to benefit unemployed Israelis if the government continues to acquiesce to employer demands for more and more cheap labor.

"The government is worried about the Jewishness of the state, so it will never give citizenship to a large number of foreign workers," Drori told me. "But this country needs menial laborers, so the foreign workers are here to stay. The question is how to regulate their presence with a greater sense of morality."




Stuck in Limbo

With the decades-long civil war in Sri Lanka over and the country opening up to foreigners as never before, Tamil refugees in India are finally seeing their chance to leave the camps and return home. The only problem? Peace creates its own barriers.

In the early summer of 1983, S.C. Chandrahasan, a lawyer living in Colombo, Sri Lanka, began to notice that there were "efforts being made to silence me"; one of his friends less euphemistically describes them as attacks on his life. Chandrahasan is a Tamil and an outspoken pitchman for human rights, a volatile combination in Sri Lanka at the time. That summer, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a separatist group of Tamil militants in the north, had ambushed Sri Lankan policemen on multiple occasions. In response, mobs made up of the Sinhalese majority killed between 400 and 3,000 Tamils across Sri Lanka; the riots came to be called Black July, though there would be many blacker months to follow. The very next month, Chandrahasan left for the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, becoming one the first of nearly 125,000 Tamils who would escape to India from the civil war that convulsed their country for 26 more years.

Chandrahasan hasn't been back to Sri Lanka since. Once in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, he founded the Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR), an NGO that represents Tamil refugees in India. OfERR is the only NGO allowed into the 115 tightly administered refugee camps in Tamil Nadu -- even today, eight months after the Sri Lankan army defeated the LTTE, killed its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, and ended the war. Chandrahasan had hoped that OfERR would be temporary; its head office, with its polystyrene roof and no walls, sits on the terrace of a Chennai tenement, and it has been maintained symbolically as an ad hoc affair that could be dismantled tomorrow. But now, even having spotted what Chandrahasan refers to as "the light at the end of the tunnel," OfERR and the refugees are reluctant to charge toward it. "We're clear about going back to Sri Lanka. We want to go back," he says. "We just cannot do anything rashly."

The peace is still less than a year old, but Sri Lanka has already begun to emerge on lists of holiday destinations; soon, everybody may be going to Sri Lanka, except the Sri Lankans who once fled their country. ("While a few military checkpoints remain, vacationers can lounge on poolside hammocks under palm trees or snorkel in its crystal-clear waters," the New York Times wrote this month.) The arrival of tourists may be proof of the cessation of combat. But the return of the Tamil refugees from India will be the best sign that the political strife underlying the war is nearing a solution and that Sri Lanka is turning back into a country where minorities can feel safe. The continuing failure of these refugees to return is, in a way, a failure of the Sri Lankan political process itself -- not to mention a humanitarian tragedy in which thousands of lives will be circumscribed by the borders of a camp well into the indefinite future.

According to figures compiled by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), roughly 800 refugees returned to Sri Lanka from India in 2009 -- most of them after the war ended in May and most of them individuals rather than families, often fishermen hurrying to resume their interrupted livelihoods. The vast majority still left are, on OfERR's insistence, still deciding what to do. In December, OfERR held three crucial, closed-door meetings of refugee representatives in towns across Tamil Nadu to discuss the challenges of return. "Earlier, we would have to tell people not to go back until it was safe," Chandrahasan says. "This time they were the ones telling us: 'Don't rush back. Don't rush back.'"

The extreme caution is partly a result of the prevailing mood in the camps, at least as described to me by OfERR officials over several conversations. (The camps are inaccessible to journalists by order of the Tamil Nadu government, which administers them.) "For the last six months, people have been more worried than relieved," one OfERR official, M. Sakkariyas, told me. "They were in a sort of mental agony, wondering what happened to their relatives back home. Only now has that begun to pass."

But the caution is also sparked by the paucity of reliable information about postwar conditions in Sri Lanka. During the war, the Sri Lankan army was accused of being ruthless with Tamil civilians -- of arresting and interning anybody with even dubious links to the LTTE and of summarily executing some of them. The army hasn't entirely shrugged off that taint, and some members of the Tamil diaspora, according to Sakkariyas, are only too eager to feed fears that such cruelty continues. The "diaspora," as Sakkariyas uses the word, refers to former supporters and financiers of the LTTE, many of whom live in the West and control communication within the Tamil community. "There's been some nonsense about a new transnational LTTE and so on, so naturally people are scared and don't know what to believe," Chandrahasan says. "They're still asking me: 'Is Prabhakaran really dead?' It takes time to overcome this kind of thing."

If the Tamil-dominated areas of Sri Lanka aren't darkened by clouds of poison gas, as the "diaspora" would have people believe, they aren't yet ideal for resettlement either. I talked to one NGO worker in Sri Lanka who had just returned from a trip to the north and the east of his country. He was there legally, but he still refused to be quoted by name. "The government doesn't want to hear statements critical of it," he says. "There's a chance they'll trace the people I talked to there and take them into custody. I don't want that."

In eastern Sri Lanka, where the war raged in its inaugural phases, the NGO worker saw that life had crawled back into a surprising degree of normality. "The markets were crowded and buzzing," he says. "I was taking photographs with so many people, and there were no security issues with that." But in the north, in towns like Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu, where the war had reached its recent, brutal climax, the scars are still raw. "Most of the villages have been bulldozed," he says. "Houses were destroyed if they were even suspected [of housing LTTE members], and the government was also involved in destroying evidence, covering up where the shells and bombs fell." The region is so fertile that vegetation has rapidly reclaimed territory within the last year.

As a bellwether, the Tamil refugees in India are eagerly watching the fate of Sri Lanka's internally displaced persons (IDPs) -- nearly 300,000 people who were detained, during the war, in camps of poor quality and dubious legal status. After announcing a couple of fuzzy deadlines for IDP resettlement last year, the Sri Lankan government has now denied that any time-bound plan exists. "These people aren't aware of what's happening to them," the NGO worker says. "In one transit camp, the residents were told that they'd be leaving in three days, and now they've been there a month and a half." He has arrived at much the same conclusion as UNHCR. "We aren't yet planning for any large-scale movement of refugees from India to Sri Lanka," Sulakshani Perera, an external relations assistant at UNHCR Sri Lanka, told me. "We think it's best to wait and see, to gauge how the situation progresses."

The wisdom of that policy appears sound, especially to people who have been burned before. Among the residents of the Tamil Nadu camps are second-, third-, and even fourth-time refugees -- Tamils who have returned to Sri Lanka, only to again flee a country still inhospitable to them. Chandrahasan recounts at least three earlier repatriations -- in the late 1980s; in 1992, after the LTTE assassinated Indian politician Rajiv Gandhi and earned the Tamil refugees their host country's disfavor; and in 2002. Every one of them ended badly; the fortunate managed only to struggle back to India, while the unfortunate were trapped between the fighting units of the army and the LTTE, waiting out a seemingly never-ending war. "In 2003, I was in a camp here in Tamil Nadu, and I asked for water from an old man," remembers Gladstone Xavier, a young OfERR volunteer. "He began to root through his baggage for a glass. He told me: 'The war is going to be over soon, so I've already packed everything up to go home.'"

Chandrahasan cannot imagine organized repatriations beginning before the end of 2010, at the very earliest. "The presidential elections are scheduled for the end of January, and after that, we'd want to see some serious political changes," he says. "We'd want a constitutional change into a federal system of government because we've seen that the unitary process cannot protect a minority against a majority. We'd want citizenship to be given to the stateless people among us. We'd want some assistance promised to the refugees." OfERR will lobby for all of this, and it has some justifiable faith in its influence: In February 2009, partly due to OfERR's vocal efforts, the Sri Lankan Parliament passed an act that approved citizenship for stateless refugees in India. But a constitutional evolution into federalism, something the Sinhalese majority opposes, is far less likely. Even presidential candidates courting Tamil votes refrain from promising too much and talk carefully of "devolution of powers."

"We're good dreamers," Chandrahasan told me once, last April, when I asked him how difficult it was to wait out the war. If events in Sri Lanka don't quite go as well as they wish, the refugees in India may find themselves dreaming out the peace -- a less bloody proposition, but one with a frustratingly indeterminate end.

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