Fortifying the Boundaries of Deservingness: Israeli Government Steps up Policies of Exclusion towards Irregular Migrants – Nora Gottlieb
Ben Gurion University of the Negev
On January 11, 2012, the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) passed an amended ‘Infiltrator Law,’ whose declared purpose is to deter irregular migrants and asylum seekers from entering the country. The law enables draconian measures, including three-year imprisonment without trial for entering the country illegally. In its original version, the law would have made assistance to irregular migrants punishable by up to 15 years imprisonment, but that particular paragraph was removed at the last minute.
Ironically, the logic of exclusion and securitization that underlies such laws has its roots in Israel’s self-concept as the homeland that guarantees the Jewish people protection and safety from persecution. The Infiltrator Law is part of a recent wave of policy decisions that solidify the denial of social and health rights to various (non-Jewish) migrant populations. Below I critically evaluate some of these recent policy developments in terms of their implications for the health rights of irregular migrants and asylum seekers in Israel.
Since 2005, the number of irregular migrants entering Israel via the Egyptian border has risen dramatically. According to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), the number of asylum seekers residing in Israel has grown from 365 in 1999, to 4,409 in 2000, to an estimated 50,000 today. Eighty-five percent have fled either Eritrea or Sudan. The new Infiltrator Law contributes to the conceptualization of all irregular migrants as illegal aliens. Not only does this allow for the retrenchments of civil rights described above, but it also legitimizes the denial of basic social and health rights, including access to healthcare, to this population.
Even before the passage of the Infiltrator Law, the situation of asylum seekers in Israel was far from rosy. Upon arrival, they are usually arrested and detained. Unable to deport these migrants to their countries of origin, Israeli authorities eventually release them, equipped with temporary visas that grant group-based temporary protection from deportation but no access to social and health rights and no formal permission to work. As a result, many asylum seekers find themselves literally on the street without any means of support. Most settle in already poor urban areas, and homelessness among asylum seekers is widespread.
The Israeli government’s main policies regarding irregular migration involve border fortification and detention. The dominance of the logics of securitization and deterrence is illustrated by the proposed ‘solution’ of constructing a fence along the Egyptian border and a prison facility that will hold as many as 10,000 persons (Tarachansky 2012). Apart from that, chaos rules. This policy of ‘ordered disorder’ (Paz 2011: 7; Willen 2010) has created a population at the very fringes of society that is destitute, vulnerable, and desperate to work at any price. By the same token, it has greatly fueled frictions between asylum seekers and low-income citizen populations.
The effects of such policies on the health and well-being of asylum seekers are devastating. By keeping asylum seekers in constant limbo and limiting their resources for coping and resilience, these policies impede recovery from the severe physical and psycho-social trauma many asylum seekers have suffered as a result of their encounters with violent conflict, torture, and rape (Lurie 2009). In fact, these policies produce health-related and other risks such as social exclusion, poverty, distress and fear (Kaufman & Aviv 2008). Further health risks derive from irregular migrants’ precarious status and related vulnerabilities. For instance, they are often unable to protest abusive working conditions or other rights violations (Paley 2011). Finally, the current policies maintain asylum seekers’ and irregular migrants’ exclusion from the public health care system. They are thus denied access to comprehensive and adequate medical care. Many irregular migrants rely on NGO-run humanitarian health services, such as the Physicians for Human Rights-Israel’s (PHR-IL) “Open Clinic.” Yet PHR-IL, like other NGOs that serve vulnerable populations, often lack the capacities to respond to migrants’ healthcare needs (Wasser 2010; Kaufman & Aviv 2008; Gottlieb et al. 2012).
Significantly, the Infiltrator Law is part of a recent wave of anti-democratic legislative initiatives in Israel. The proposal of such laws and their passage by the Israeli Knesset are more than worrisome expressions of policy-makers’ utilization and reinforcement of xenophobia, securitization, and nationalism. It is a sad irony indeed that the Israeli state, established as a safe haven by and for Jewish refugees, uses this very logic in order to reject responsibility for persons who seek shelter from oppression, persecution, and violent conflict.
 The principle of non-refoulement, enshrined in the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) and the Convention Against Torture (1984) forbids the return of asylum seekers to countries in which their lives and bodily integrity may be in danger.
 For instance, enslavement and torture of migrants by their traffickers on the Sinai Peninsula have been widely reported. See, e.g., Physicians for Human Rights-Israel: Hostages, Torture and Rape in the Sinai Desert – Media Timeline; and The Guardian, Feb. 16th.2012: “African migrants tortured in Egypt’s Sinai desert.”
Gottlieb, N., Filc, D., & Davidovitch, N. (2012). Medical humanitarianism, human rights and political advocacy: The case of the Israeli Open Clinic. Social Science & Medicine, 74, 839-845.
Kaufman, N. & Aviv, A. (2008). Under Your Wing. Refugees and Asylum Seekers at Physicians for Human Rights-Israel’s Open Clinic. Physicians for Human Rights – Israel.
Lurie, I. (2009). Psychiatric Care in Restricted Conditions for Work Migrants, Refugees and Asylum Seekers: Experience of the Open Clinic for Work Migrants and Refugees, Israel 2006. Israeli Journal for Psychiatry & Related Sciences.
Paley, M. (2011). Surviving in Limbo. Lived Experiences of Eritrean and Sudanese Asylum Seekers in Israel. ASSAF, Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel.
Paz, Y. (2011). Ordered Disorder: African Asylum Seekers in Israel and discursive challenges to an emerging refugee regime. UNHCR research paper no. 205.
Tarachansky, L. Israel to become biggest jailer of refugees. The Real News, 26.01.2012.
Wasser, D. (2010). Israel’s other problem: The South Sudanese Refugee Crisis in the Context of Social Justice and Medical Education. Global Pulse.
Willen, S. S. (2010). Darfur through a Shoah Lens: Sudanese Asylum Seekers, Unruly Biopolitical Dramas, and the Politics of Humanitarian Compassion in Israel. In A Reader in Medical Anthropology: Theoretical Trajectories, Emergent Realities, edited by B.J. Good, M. Fischer, S.S. Willen and M.-J. DelVecchio Good. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
- Physicians for Human Rights–Israel
- The Refugees’ Rights Forum
- The Association for Civil Rights in Israel
Photos are part of Natan Dvir’s photography project “Shelter.”
Nora Gottlieb is a PhD student in the Faculty of Health Science at Ben Gurion University of the Negev. She has been working and volunteering for Physicians for Human Rights–Israel since 2005. Her fields of interest include political determinants of health; concepts of health rights, social justice and citizenship; migration and health; and gender and health.
Gottlieb, Nora. 2012. “Fortifying the boundaries of deservingness: Israeli government steps up policies of exclusion towards irregular migrants.” Accessed [date] at http://accessdeniedblog.wordpress.com/2012/04/10/fortifying-the-boundaries-of-deservingness-israeli-government-steps-up-policies-of-exclusion-towards-irregular-migrants-nora-gottlieb/#more-1761.