On Monday, Israel's High Court weighed in again on the issue of Israel’s migration policy. The court upheld the right of the state to deport asylum-seekers – many of whom are in reality economic migrants. But, the court added, asylum-seekers could not be held indefinitely in the Holot open detention center, even if they refuse to be relocated to a third country. After 60 days in prison, they must be let free if they cannot be deported involuntarily for safety reasons.
Now the government has two choices: Take the pressure off illegal migrants to accept relocation in accordance with the High Court decision and risk another wave of asylum-seekers flooding the country, or amend the law to enable more extended detention and thus keep in place extended incarceration and a ban on employment, which have proved to be the most effective deterrent to illegal migration.
There are no easy answers when dealing with the worldwide migrant crisis – and this holds true for Israel no less than for Europe, the US or Australia.
No human can remain indifferent to the plight of migrants who risk everything to make a better life for themselves. Some are escaping real oppression, others are seeking a new start, a chance to live a respectable, comfortable life. Nearly all have gone to great lengths to remove themselves from the societies into which they were born and strive for more.
And even illegal migrants must have their basic human rights protected. In a 9-0 decision, Israel's High Court justices ruled in September 2013 that incarceration of migrants for three years or more constitutes an infringement of the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.
At the same time, the brutal reality is that resources are limited. The vast majority of migrants who reach Europe or the US or Israel with no real occupational skills will face extreme difficulty integrating into modern economies that rely less and less on manual labor.
Strict enforcement of borders and tough policies that include deportation, bans on employment, and extended periods of incarceration might seem brutal. But they deter potential migrants from traveling thousands of kilometers, risking their lives, losing their savings and exposing themselves to ruthless human traffickers.
Preventing illegal migration also protects Western countries from the high social costs of accepting large numbers of migrants. It is enough to walk around south Tel Aviv to see firsthand the high price residents have paid for Israel’s lax migration policies until 2012, when the government implemented policies that made life much more difficult for illegal migrants already in Israel. And this was before the completion of the barrier erected on the Egyptian border in December 2012.
In the first half of 2012 the number of illegal migrants entering Israel averaged around 1,500 a month. But suddenly in July there was a sharp drop to just 200. And the numbers continued to fall month after month. In December 2012, just 37 migrants made their way into Israel. July was the month that Israel began placing migrants in the Holot open detention center, where their basic needs were taken care of, but they were prevented from working or moving around freely.
A nation’s desire to regulate migration should not be motivated by racism or xenophobia but rather by a preference for social stability and trust that in turn can lead to increased security and prosperity. In Israel’s case the motivation also comes from the need to maintain the nation’s unique character as the world’s only Jewish state.
Israel is hardly the only Western country to adopt a hardline policy with regard to illegal migration. Australia took the step of setting up an offshore detention center and putting in place a strict migration policy. In 2009, when the center-left Labor Party won elections and Kevin Rudd, the new prime minister, closed the offshore-processing camps, the sharp uptick in illegal migration and the public outcry that followed cost Rudd party leadership. Julia Gillard, who succeeded him as prime minister, not only reinstituted the centers, she adopted additional measures against illegal migrants. Many Western Europeans are envious of countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary that have kept in place strict anti-migrant policies.
Israel is not alone in coping with the worldwide migrant crisis. Tough policies may seem brutal but they are needed to prevent what can sometimes become even greater suffering.
This article appeared first at The Jerusalem Post.