Wednesday, 22 July 2009

The Wizardry of Oz

On Saturday about 1,000 people protested in Tel Aviv against on-going plans for the mass expulsion of migrant workers and refugees by Israel's immigration authorities. This follows the formation of a new immigration police force, the Oz unit, which began operations on July 1, detaining 220 people in its first 2 weeks of existence.*

During the same period there has been a growing opposition movement to the expulsions and Saturday's demonstration was the third in 3 weeks. The march and demonstration was joined by a large number of migrant workers and refugees including some of the Israel-born children facing deportation and who are gaining widespread public sympathy.

The Oz unit is tasked with expelling all of Israel's 'illegals' by 2013, including 20,000 this year with the first mass expulsion due in August. Israel's Interior Ministry estimates there are 280,000 foreigners living in Israel illegally. Of these, 118,000 are foreign workers who entered the country legally and either lost their status or stayed after their five-year permits expired. An additional 90,000 are people who entered the country on a tourist visa and did not leave when it expired. The remainder is made up of 24,000 'infiltrators' and asylum-seekers, and 2,000 minors who were born here to parents from other countries and have no legal status.

Many of these foreign workers were originally encouraged to come to Israel to fill jobs that Palestinian workers were no longer able to fill due to the Infantada and the government continues to grant work permits to thousands of new migrants. One source of the problem is that migrant labourers are often tied exclusively to one employer, and enjoy limited to no freedom in choosing jobs. Once they lose their job, they have only 3 months to find a new one before facing deportation.

One Israeli MP Ilan Gilon said in a recent Knesset debate, "My friends, this is a revolting stock exchange of slaves, slave traders and pimps whom you all serve. That is the reality." Others have compared Israel's policy on foreign workers to that of apartheid South Africa.

Many foreign workers are also exploited by Israeli employment agencies and lawyers who make their living by scamming the ignorant and vulnerable of money for non-existent jobs of work visas.

Some migrants and ordinary Israelis have taken the fight back to the Oz Immigration officers with the head of the unit, Tziki Sela, receiving hundred of threatening phone calls as part of a phone blockade. One message allegedly said, "you've forgotten what it's like to be a persecuted minority." "Coordinators of flights to hell, you'll get there, too", ran another text message. And in recent weeks attempts to detain Sudanese and Nigerian migrants have ended in mass dust ups.

In an amusing footnote, Micky Louis Mayon, a high-profile Ku Klux Klan member wanted in the US on charges of racist assaults, setting fire to vehicles belonging to federal agents and a host of violence incidents, was arrested at his Tel Aviv hideout on Monday by the very same Oz enforcement unit.

* 64% were asylum-seekers from Sudan and Eritrea who were arrested for violating an Immigration Authority order that forbids them from residing in the centre of the country, 16% were migrant workers and 20% were people with expired tourist visas or people who had crossed the Egyptian border illegally.

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