Israel with its flourishing economy on the doorstep of the African continent has seen in the past few months an influx of some 2,500 African migrants, mainly from Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and the Ivory Coast.
It is the first time Israel is facing a major wave of illegal immigration from Africa, a problem that has besieged European countries, especially Italy and Spain.
AdvertisementAt the Ketziot prison camp near Nitzana, under the blazing desert sun, 400 would-be African immigrants, staying in tents and makeshift shelters, wait to find out if they will get the coveted permit to stay in Israel or be given refugee status. Otherwise, they will be returned to the Egyptian border.
Amadu Balde, a 25-year-old Ivorian, says he does not understand his imprisonment.
'I am not a criminal, I just want to work to help my family back in the Ivory Coast,' he said.
Along with several friends, he opted to come to the Middle East instead of taking the usual route for African migrants by sea in flimsy boats to southern Europe.
'Europe is dangerous, you have to cross the Mediterranean. Coming to Israel is more sure,' he said, as the journey is by land.
Many detainees tell the same story.
Source:AFP After paying between 1,000 and 2,000 dollars (720 to 1,400 euros) for their trek across Africa, they are transported by Bedouin smugglers to the porous border between Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Israel, a frontier that stretches for more than 200 kilometres (125 miles).
Once there they are told to cross over the border and sit by the side of the road, and an Israeli border guard patrol will pick them up.
When they are taken to the Ketziot prison camp, the men and women are separated. The women are sent to air-conditioned prefabricated housing; the men to crushingly hot tents. They are ususally grouped by nationality and ethnic origin.
'We want to stay here because Israel respects human rights,' said William, who like some of the other migrants would only give his first name.
He fled from Sudan's war-torn region of Darfur where more than 200,000 people have died and some two million others been displaced by the four-year conflict, according to UN figures.
Sending him back to Darfur, William says, would be his death sentence.
Israel has given temporary permission for several hundred Sudanese, mostly from Darfur, to work in the country's kibbutzim, or collective farms, and also in Eilat as the Red Sea resort city has a need for manual laborers -- and offers Africans a good salary.
'I receive 4,000 shekels (970 dollars per month),' said Ali from southern Sudan who cleans rooms at the Royal Beach luxury hotel in Eilat.
In addition, he says: 'I have housing, and my wife and children are safe. I hope Israel will allow us to stay here.'
News of prosperity in the Jewish state has spread like wildfire back home in Africa.
In just a few months more than 2,500 immigrants have rushed to the Isreali border, according to figures from the UN refugee agency.
Israel's tourism industry is not unhappy about the new influx of workers.
'They are good workers. They're motivated because they need money to help their families,' said David Blum, personnel director for the Isrotel hotel chain, which has hired more than 200 immigrants.
'They take the jobs that the Israelis don't want,' he said.
The United Nations however is worried about the growing trend of Africans heading to Israel.
'Israel is the only Western country to have a land border with Africa; thousands of people want to take their chances' of getting into the Jewish state, said Miky Bavli, director for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Israel.
He warns that 'if the current 2,500 refugees are accepted in Israel, tens of thousands more are going to arrive (at the border) without any political agreement with Egypt, which will court disaster.'
Israeli Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit recently proposed naturalising several hundred refugees from Darfur, while expelling the others back to the Egyptian border.