Targeting the Margins: African Migrants and Palestinians

The tragedy of the treatment of African refugees and migrants in Israel with riots, fires and politicians decrying them as a cancer has become the major public face of Israel in the news recently with headlines spanning from Ha’aretz to the Guardian to The Globe and Mail in Canada. However, the issue of refugees and migrants, while resulting in an unheard of vitriol from Israeli citizens in the disadvantaged neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv who live in already desperate conditions, does not look at some of the other hidden victims.

This new influx of refugees and migrants who are forced to work illegally (as the government usually refuses to issue any kind of working visa) not only hurts them but also a group that remains silent on the issue: the Palestinians. The jobs that these African refugees are forced to take, especially those without work permits, are the same ones that Palestinian legal and illegal labor competes for. One of the reasons that Palestinian work permits are generally accepted by the Israeli public and government is that they are seen as a way to minimize the harms to the Palestinian population being in a state of occupation to try to mitigate the economic disparity between the two populations,(though the number of Palestinians from the West Bank working in Israel today, assumed to be about 20,000, is far less than the 200,000 Palestinian workers from the Occupied Territories, including Gaza, who worked in Israel before the first intifada). However, refugees and illegal migrants undercut the need for Palestinian labor as they can work for half the cost of a Palestinian or Israeli laborer in what some have termed near-slave like conditions.

The new economy of ‘race to the bottom’ wages has now had an unintended side-effect. The Palestinian laborers previously worked for less than Israeli laborers but now African migrants and refugees work for even less than the Palestinians. For even the bare minimum right to work in Israel, Palestinians must pay up to $500/month to the Israeli authorities must attain security clearance and must carry a magnetic identity card including all their personal details.1 So for African migrants to receive these jobs adds insult to injury for a group that already has so much difficulty finding paid work. But the question remains: why are these two groups fighting it out in the margins of the workforce rather than competing with the general Israeli labor market?

In an angle too quickly forgotten about, forcing migrant labor to work underground and diminishing the economic opportunities for both Africans and Palestinians is not sustainable for Israeli society, and it actively harms Palestinian workers who already work for far less than their Israeli counterparts. The government has a choice: to either continue this race to the bottom at the risk of Africans, Israelis and Palestinians or let African migrants and Palestinians enter a fair workforce without working in unregulated environments which an Israeli would be hesitant to enter. The government needs to either offer temporary working visas to the Africans or offer Palestinians who work in Israel some kind of job security. The issue now affects Israelis, Africans and Palestinians with likely more people to be affected in the future. Rather than inciting race riots and rampant racism, perhaps the MKs should offer a sustainable solution instead.

1 Bsaikri, Senussi. “Middle East Monitor Fact Sheet: The Predicament of Palestinian Workers in Israel,” Middle East Monitor (MEMO), February 2010. Web. June 5, 2012.