South Sudanese boys take part in a protest against their deportation outside the residence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem April 1, 2012
An Israeli man was charged with arson after he threw Molotov cocktails at the homes of African migrants in Tel Aviv. Reuters

Virtually every year, thousands upon thousands of desperately poor Africans risk their lives in the harsh deserts of Egypt to reach Israel, a place they believe to be a promised land. They come as asylum-seekers, looking for jobs and to improve their living standards, to leave behind the harsh lives they had in Sudan and Eritrea, among other places.

But these black immigrants evoke little sympathy among many Israelis, who see them as illegal interlopers, bottom-feeders who will ultimately compete for jobs while driving wages down, debilitating neighborhoods and housing, increasing the crime rate, and adding a new unwelcome demographic to Israel's tiny population of 8 million.

In short, the presence of these Africans has stoked an anti-immigrant bias in Israel as virulent as any in the world. Interior Minister Eliyahu Yishai has described the neighborhoods of Tel Aviv where African migrants have settled as the country's garbage can and suggested that AIDS-infected migrants are raping Israeli women.

And, last month, demonstrations against these immigrants in a poor quarter of Tel Aviv turned violent. Firebombs were tossed into apartments housing Africans, while shops catering to them were vandalized. Three members of Parliament attended the rally, all of them delivering fiery anti-immigrant speeches. Miri Regev, a Likud party MP, bellowed that the Sudanese are a cancer in our body, and called for their immediate expulsion. (She subsequently apologized for her remarks, but did not retract her fierce opposition to illegal immigrants).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been equally outspoken on this issue, calling the migrants infiltrators, among other pejoratives, and warning that the very character and existence of Israel are under threat by these black refugees.

[These migrants may] lead to the eradication of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, Netanyahu declared.

In response to the influx of immigrants, Netanyahu ordered his cabinet to speed up the deportation of 25,000 African migrants to nations on the continent with which Israel has diplomatic relations -- including South Sudan, Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Ethiopia. And he has called for the construction of camps and detention centers to temporarily house the refugees. In addition, Israel has also recently passed a law under which illegal migrants can be jailed for as long as three years.

And, in perhaps its most brazen move, Israel is constructing a 150-mile steel barrier along the border in the vast, lawless Sinai Desert. It is expected to be completed next year. While touring the construction site recently, Aryeh Eldad, a member of the right-wing Hatikva party, said: Anyone that penetrates Israel's border should be shot, a Swedish tourist, Sudanese from Eritrea, Eritreans from Sudan, Asians from Sinai. Whoever touches Israel's border -- shot.

A Seven-Year Trend

As many as 60,000 African migrants have penetrated Israel's border in the past seven years. The flow of Africans to the Jewish state accelerated in 2005, when Egyptian security officials attacked a group of Sudanese refugees, killing at least 20 of them, prompting an exodus of sorts to neighboring Israel. Their voyage through the Sinai Desert was extremely dangerous -- facing the risks of beatings, rape, extortion, and even murder, perpetrated by Bedouin Arabs and human smugglers.

The fall of the regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt also had a dramatic impact on illegal immigration into Israel. Adriana Kemp, a senior lecturer in the department of sociology and anthropology at Tel Aviv University, said that by the end of June of last year (four months after Mubarak was deposed), there were 36,504 asylum seekers in Israel. By November, that number had grown to 45,000, and by April, it had increased by nearly one-half again.

Unlike other countries in the region, Israel offers stability and at least the chance to climb a rung or two on the economic ladder. Israel is an open, prosperous society; a functional equivalent to Europe, and more accessible from Africa, with a community of African migrants that is well established, said Ian Lustick, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.

The difficulties of crossing the Sinai, and the vulnerability to depredations by the Bedouin human traffickers are daunting, but on the other hand Egyptian security control over the approaches to Israel via Sinai are weak and porous, Lustick said.

Israel has a distinct and unique history as a haven for refugees seeking escape from violence and persecution. Indeed, the county was essentially created as a safe homeland for Jews in the wake of the Nazi holocaust in Europe.

And Israel once pledged not to deport asylum-seekers if they faced danger in their native countries by endorsing a 1951 United Nations treaty on refugees. As a result, some Israeli observers think the hostile attitude toward immigrants is hypocritical.

So many Jews not many years ago infiltrated other countries illegally and were saved and were denied -- and I would expect Israel to remember this, commented Gideon Levy, a columnist for Israel's left-wing Haaretz newspaper.

Indeed, a few decades ago, Israel welcomed Africans -- at least Jewish Africans -- who needed asylum. In 1984, under a program called Operation Moses, 8,000 Ethiopian Jews were secretly transported to Israel from Sudan during a time of famine. And, in 1991, more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted into Israel under Operation Solomon to escape equally harsh conditions.

According to the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, a total of about 85,000 Ethiopian Jews reside in Israel now -- about 20,000 of whom were born there.

And in the 1990s and early 2000s, Israel turned a blind eye toward the many Africans who came from Congo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Sierra Leone, among other places, as undocumented workers with tourist visas.

Most of them settled in South Tel Aviv and the southern city of Eilat, and they created their own communities, said Tel Aviv University's Kemp.

Legal Questions

The major differences between these prior migrations and the recent influx, Kemp noted, is that today's Africans come through the Egypt-Israeli territorial border (rather than via Ben Gurion Airport), and they immediately surrender to the Israeli army asking for asylum. In addition, the new arrivals are mostly men, while in the past African migrants generally were nuclear families.

The legal status of these new immigrants is rather vague. For example, Sudan has no diplomatic relations with Israel, while Eritrea has been criticized for human-rights abuses. Consequently, Israel has approved very few asylum applications by Africans. According to the U.S. State Department, Israel received about 4,600 asylum applications last year: About 3,700 were rejected while only one was approved. The others are pending.

Our objective is to have Israel host these people under proper conditions until the option arises for them to go home, said William Tall, a U.N. envoy for refugees in Israel.

For now, though, black migrants in Israel live in a kind of limbo -- unable to legally work, and with most public services, like health care, blocked to them. Africans sometimes eke out jobs as day laborers, but there is competition. With Palestinians barred from working in some Israeli towns, the government has recruited migrant workers from Asian nations such as Thailand, Philippines, and China to temporarily fill positions in the agricultural, construction, and health-care sectors. Indeed, these Asian workers account for about 10 percent of the Israeli labor market.

Whether or not they find work, the Africans are finding themselves in a tug-of-war between the U.N. and the Israeli government. Israel views them as economic migrants and not individuals entitled to asylum. Yet, because they declare themselves to be asylum-seekers, most of the so-called 'infiltrators' from Sudan and Eritrea enjoy 'collective protection' and, according to the [U.N. Refugee Agency], cannot be deported, said Kemp.

At least until the Sinai border fence is completed next year, waves and waves of additional African immigrants are expected to cross into Israel. Unable to send them back, Israel will likely continue to respond with one of the few hardships that the Africans did not have to endure in their home country: a constant stream of racism.