In anthropology, the term ‘expansion’ is used to describe the spread of a population into new lands, often much larger in size. The Bantu Expansion was thus the spread of Bantu agricultural peoples from eastern Nigeria into central, eastern, and southern Africa between 1,000 and 3,000 years ago. Roughly the same period saw Austronesians expand out of southern China and into most of southeast Asia and Oceania. Finally, the last five hundred years have seen the expansion of European peoples into the Americas, Australia and New Zealand, southern Africa, and Siberia.
Today, a new expansion is under way. In a zone stretching across Africa from Sierra Leone to Somalia, population growth is outstripping the carrying capacity of the land. People are responding to this situation in the same way that people have always responded: by migrating en masse to new territories and a new life.
But how? Isn’t the rest of the world already occupied by other peoples? Yes, but so were the lands colonized by the Bantu, the Austronesians, and the Europeans. What once belonged to one people can be taken by another. It’s really that simple.
This new population expansion at first spread largely into the homelands of the former colonial powers, specifically Great Britain and France. In recent years, especially since the mid-1990s, it has begun to spill into southern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, as well as cities farther afield.
Israel, in particular, is becoming a prime destination. There are two reasons. First, it is the only First World nation that abuts directly on Africa. You can literally walk there from demographic hotspots in the Sahel or the Horn of Africa. Second, Israel has weak ideological defenses. In a post-national world, it is no longer acceptable to justify Israel’s existence as a land where Jews can live as Jews among Jews. The preferred justification is to present Israel as a haven for ‘victims.’ Unfortunately, this victimology can have unintended consequences.
Since the mid-1990s, 3 to 5 million people have poured into Egypt from sub-Saharan Africa. Although this population movement is widely attributed to the civil war in Darfur and to the continuing low-grade conflict in southern Sudan, there are also many migrants coming from Eritrea and elsewhere in Africa.
Beginning in the mid-2000s, some of these migrants began to infiltrate across the Israeli border with the help of Bedouin smugglers. They were not sent back, as one of them recounted:
“We were taken to the court and the judge said that it will be impossible to send us back to Sudan, which is an enemy country. But she also said that if the state will support us two million refugees will come to Israel and it will be a disaster. Then we were sent to Maasihu Prison, where I stayed for 14 months.” (Yacobi, 2009, p. 3).
The news soon spread to places as far away as Eritrea, Nigeria, and the Ivory Coast. From early 2007 to the end of March 2008, over 20,000 Africans crossed into the Negev from Egypt (Yacobi, 2009, p. 13). They were split equally between Sudanese and Eritreans with smaller numbers from Central and West Africa (Yacobi, 2009, p. 7).
These African migrants have stirred up divergent reactions in their host country. On the one hand, it is difficult to turn them away when official discourse so often presents Israel as a haven for refugees:
There is wide agreement that one of the turning points in bringing the refugee issue to the Israeli public was when the campaign against the deportation of refugees focused on the Holocaust, pointing out that it was the Jewish people who had needed shelter and protection during and after the Second World War. The Jewish historical experience and Jewish collective memory became a convincing tool in the public sphere as noted, for example, by Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev who said: “we cannot stand by as refugees from genocide in Darfur are knocking on our doors” (Yacobi, 2009, p. 10)
Many Africans understand the power of Holocaust discourse in this debate:
Just before last Passover a group of African refugees volunteered to help Holocaust survivors with cleaning, painting and, more generally, with renovating their flats. This event was covered by the Israeli media, emphasizing the common fate of both Jewish and African refugees. (Yacobi, 2009, p. 10)
The influx of African migrants has thus been facilitated by comparisons with Jewish refugees of another era. This comparison is not accepted by all Israelis, like this commenter:
to be precise the only difference between janjaweed and darfurians is that the janjaweed have won the war .. otherwise the whole story would have been replayed in reverse with the darfurians attacking, raping and ethnic cleansing the arabs… this cannot be said about jewish refugees in europe who did not resist (the conflict in darfur was started by the darfurian separatists, not by the arabs) while the danger for them was a real one … it’s impossible to call the darfurian conflict a genocide and compare it to holocaust as it’s just an ethnic conflict in which both parties widely resort to ethnic cleansing. (Lotan, 2007)
This view seems to be shared by the Israeli government, which is increasingly using the term ‘infiltrator’ instead of ‘refugee,’ as in this speech by the prime minister in January 2010:
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Thursday warned that ongoing illegal African immigration posed a threat to Israel, and announced that he will ask the government to endorse a plan to erect a barrier along Israel’s border with Egypt to prevent infiltration from Africa.
The barrier is meant to prevent an expected “flood” of African immigrants seeking jobs in Israel, Netanyahu said.
According to Netanyahu’s plan, border guards and electronic systems will safeguard the proposed barrier, which will be partly above ground. In addition to the barrier, the government will work to increase law enforcement against employers who hire illegal foreign workers.
Addressing the Manufacturers Association General Assembly, Netanyahu warned that African immigrants infiltrating Israel from Egypt were changing the “demographic landscape” in Israel.
“I don’t know if you have been to Eilat and have seen what’s going on there. In Tel Aviv there are places you wouldn’t recognize, this is something that must be stopped,” Netanyahu said. (JPost, 2010)
Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders hope to staunch African immigration by building a ‘smart fence’ between Israel and Egypt, by interning refugees for lengthy periods, and by fining employers of illegal immigrants. As strong as these measures may seem, it is doubtful whether they will have much effect. A ‘smart fence’ can be outmaneuvered by first having a few refugees cross it to tie down the border patrol and then sending over a much larger group farther down the border. Nor will lengthy internment be a real deterrent. Many of the refugees see it as a price worth paying for admission to a First World country (Yacobi, 2009, p. 5). Finally, employer sanctions have a poor record of enforcement in other Western nations.
Israelis in general are also pinning their hopes on an end to the Darfur civil war. But even with peace there will still be an outflow of people from Darfur, as there is from other Sahel regions that have no civil conflict. The truth is that a subsistence economy on arid soil cannot support Darfur’s growing population: up from 1 million in 1950 to over 6 million today. Something has to give, and it is richer countries, like Israel, that will be called on to do the giving.
JPost (2010). PM: Infiltrators dangerous for Israel, The Jerusalem Post, January 21, 2010, http://www.jpost.com/Israel/Article.aspx?id=166296
Lotan, G. (2007). Israel: Sudanese Refugees – Like Darfur, as Auschwitz
Yacobi, H. (2009). African Refugees’ Influx in Israel from a Socio-Political Perspective, CARIM Research Reports 2009/04, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies.