JERUSALEM – Israel will construct fences on its long and porous southern desert border with Egypt in a bid to halt a growing flood of African refugees and asylum seekers who have poured into the Jewish state in recent years, officials said Monday.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said two fences would run along parts of the 150-mile southern border with Egypt.
"This is a strategic decision to ensure the Jewish and democratic character of the state of Israel," Netanyahu said in a statement. "Israel will remain open to war refugees but we cannot allow thousands of illegal workers to infiltrate into Israel via the southern border and flood our country."
The two fences will cover a total of 70 miles. One will be in southwest Israel, near the Gaza Strip town of Rafah. The other will be built near the Red Sea port city of Eilat.
Government spokesman Mark Regev said government ministers approved the plan Sunday evening. He said a date hasn't been set for construction. The project is expected to cost about $400 million, according to local media.
Israel, a relatively affluent Western society, is a popular destination for African refugees and job seekers fleeing war-wrecked and impoverished countries.
The influx has created a dilemma for authorities. On one hand, the new arrivals strain Israel's social service system and upset the country's demographic mix, possibly tilting it away from a Jewish majority. About three-quarters of Israel's 7 million citizens are Jewish.
On the other hand, Israel is a country created in large part as a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution, and many feel they cannot turn their backs on the Africans, believing the government must be more sensitive to their needs.
Israel's policy toward the asylum seekers has been muddled, with frequent changes in rules and procedures.
At present, Africans who cross into Israel through Egypt are detained for several months in a nearby prison while their applications are processed.
Most are eventually given one-month visas to stay in Israel that they must renew every month, said Yonatan Berman of the Migrants Hotline, an advocacy group that helps the asylum seekers. They are not allowed to work, but the government turns a blind eye, and most find low-skilled jobs like dishwashers and hotel bell boys across the country.
Israeli police say 100 to 200 Africans enter illegally through Egypt each week. Around 19,000 asylum have poured into Israel since 2005. But there are thousands more foreign workers who have overstayed their permits. Many live in crowded slums in Tel Aviv or in the southern border town of Eilat.
Israel requested Egypt tighten its border patrols and since then many African migrants have been shot and killed by Egyptian police trying to sneak through.
Both countries have been criticized by human rights groups for their approach to the problem.
The relatively low-tech barrier will include radars to detect human movement.
Security and crime concerns have also prompted Israel to erect the fences. Smugglers use the porous area to traffic women into Israel's prostitution trade, and it's also a main conduit for drugs entering the country.