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Myths about refugees and migrant workers (Elizabeth Tsurkov)

The public debate raging in Israel today about migrant workers and refugees is full of misleading statistics, slogans and bombastic headlines, which makes it hard to get to the core of the debate. Are migrant workers “taking over” cities across Israel, driving the crime rate up? Are the African “infiltrators” actually migrant workers exploiting Israel? Do migrant workers come to Israel to have babies that will anchor them to Israel? Here I’ll attempt to dispel some of these myths with statistics and a dose of common sense that often seems to elude this debate.

The most common myth about migrant workers and especially refugees is that they are prone to criminality (whether because of their culture/race or due to want). Reports in Israeli media abound quoting scared Israeli neighbors of foreigners who complain about the uptick in crime in their area since the migrants arrived, the foreigners “scary stares”, “hot temper” and “uncleanliness”. Even a report by the Israeli police stated that asylum seeker’s “appearance is threatening and harms the public’s sense of security”. However, the same police department, when pressed for details, provides data that shows an interesting trend – crime rates drop in Eilat as the number of asylum seekers in Israel increases (23% drop in crime since refugees began entering Israel five years ago). Similar data exists for the cities of Arad and Tel Aviv showing the same trend.

A second common myth that is aggressively promoted by the Israeli government is that migrant workers take jobs from Israelis, while the government continues to “import” 30,000 migrant workers per year. However, there is no correlation between the rate of unemployment and the number of migrant workers in Israel. According to Dr. Roy Wagner of Kav LaOved, “migrant workers are a growth engine and help create jobs: they work hard, make little money, and use services and products in the local market.” Wagner explained that unemployment can arise “when restrictive government policies force migrant workers and the local population to compete for the same segment of the labor market.”

A third common myth that Israeli governments have maintained for years is that the refugees entering Israel from Egypt are in fact illegal migrant workers that face no danger back home. This nonsense is promoted by the government despite the fact that Israel refuses to even examine the eligibility of most of the asylum seekers for refugee status, and despite the fact that in reports to the UN Israel admits that over 90% of the asylum seekers are refugees. A common variation of this myth is that since the refugees arrived from Egypt and not directly from their countries, they can no longer be considered as refugees. However, African refugees face widespread exploitation, discrimination, violence and abuse in Egypt. A South Sudanese student of mine lived in Egypt for six years before crossing into Israel. What forced him to relocate isn’t the possible better wage he can get here, but abuse he suffered from Egyptian authorities and Egyptians themselves since the age of 15 when he escaped his war-torn country. In a blatant violation of international law, Egypt forcibly returned refugees several times to Eritrea and Sudan, where they face torture and death. Sigal Rosen of Hotline for Migrant Workers states that “Egyptian authorities are doing their best to prevent refugees from making a living and surviving.”

Recently, with the deportation of children of migrant workers and their children looming, another myth was ushered into the public discourse by the government, most notably by Interior Minister Yishai who claimed that migrant workers are having children as an “insurance policy” against deportation. However, procedures of the same Ministry Yishai heads strip migrant workers of their legal status once they have children. As Dr. Wagner points out “having children isn’t a way to get a legal status, but a way to lose it.” In 2006, some migrant workers and their children were granted legal status, but according to Wagner, since then there was no increase in the number of births among migrant workers (which stands at about 100 births per year).

In the United States, a very similar myth about migrant workers exists. Conservative politicians and media outlets have been using the derogatory term “anchor babies” to describe children born in the U.S. to undocumented migrants. The 14th Amendment guarantees that all those who are born in the U.S. gain American citizenship (which is not the case in Israel). However, Professor Kevin Johnson, a Dean at the University of California, explains that those children would have to wait for at least 21 years to sponsor their parents and anyone staying in the U.S. illegally would be barred from returning to the States for ten years. Having “anchor babies” so that 31 years later you may be able to gain legal status is simply “not practical or realistic”, according to Professor Johnson.

All these myths rob migrant workers and refugees of their humanity, and are aimed at portraying them as less deserving of our sympathy and help. Incitement against migrants exists in all societies, and myths that portray them as outsiders coming to exploit the resources of the state and threats are often promoted by politicians.

But there is one big difference – in Europe and the United States, the politicians promoting and capitalizing on anti-migrant xenophobia are in the fringes of the right-wing. In Israel, the politicians who incite against migrants and refugees are the ones in power.

The writer would like to thank Orna Dickman and Sigal Rosen of Hotline for Migrant Workers for their assistance in collecting data for this report.

Elizabeth Tsurkov studies media and international relations at the Hebrew University and is a volunteer at Kav LaOved and Advocates for Asylum.

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