ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected calls for his country to take in some of the refugees streaming through the Middle East, citing the potential risks.
‘‘Israel is not indifferent to the human tragedy of the refugees from Syria and Africa,’’ he said at Sunday’s cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.
“But Israel is a small country, a very small country, that lacks demographic and geographic depth; therefore, we must control our borders against illegal migrants and terrorism.”
Netanyahu said Israel is discussing multilateral aid packages with other European governments aimed at helping African states “in order to deal with the problem at the source.”
He also announced that work has begun on a new security fence along Israel’s eastern border with Jordan.
Europe is facing its biggest refugee crisis since World War II, with thousands flooding its borders and more than 2,400 perishing at sea this year after fleeing violence in the Middle East and North Africa. Most have sought sanctuary from the conflict ravaging Israel’s enemy, neighbouring Syria.
Israel’s policy on accepting migrants has been the subject of a contentious debate since the government began acting against the estimated 60,000 Africans who have entered the country of 8.3 million in the past decade.
Netanyahu has denounced their arrival as a threat to Israel’s Jewish majority and oversaw construction of a 245-km fence along its border with Egypt and which was completed in 2013 to contain the flow.
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Fewer than 70 people have made it across the border since, versus more than 10,000 in 2012, government statistics showed.
More than 45,000 African asylum seekers—what critics refer to as “mistanenim,” Hebrew for infiltrators—reside in Israel, up from 3,000 in 2006, but just 200 claims have been approved for refugee status in the past six decades.
Many Africans, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, are the backbone of the country’s restaurant and hotel industry. In March, the government instituted a programme that speeds deportations and imprisons many who refuse to leave.
“The State of Israel will not be the solution to the ills of Africa,” Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said in a radio interview last year. Most of the Africans seeking asylum in Israel “are not refugees, but labour migrants.” In early June, Shaked said new legislation will discourage Africans from coming to Israel.
The government recently began sending letters to some migrants giving them 30 days to choose between “voluntarily” leaving for a third African country—with a $3,500 grant from Israel—or indefinite detention in a facility near the Egyptian border.
Thousands have been detained and deported.