DON GONYEA, HOST:
There's been a dramatic drop this year in the number of people illegally entering Israel from Africa. Most of them are from Sudan or Eritrea. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives credit to a new fence that stretches across Israel's southern border and now the Israeli government plans to experiment with new policies to separate asylum seekers from the rest of Israel. NPR's Emily Harris has this report.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLIPPING HAIR)
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: The scissors never seem to stop in Sami's barbershop, off a pedestrian street in South Tel Aviv. Fresh out of the barber's chair, 20-year-old Philip Giray says he left Eritrea two years ago. Smugglers helped him cross into Sudan and Egypt, then he snuck into Israel.
PHILIP GIRAY: We come here, we ask asylum here, they doesn't welcome us. They punish us psychological, you know?
HARRIS: This was before Israel built its fence. As was usual then, the Israeli military picked Philip up, took him to a detention center for a few days, then turned him loose in South Tel Aviv.
GIRAY: They give us a bus ticket, I come here. I sleep over there in the park, in the street, for two months more. Then I start to work.
HARRIS: Now he's in legal limbo. Israel won't deport migrants from Sudan or Eritrea because of continuing violence in that region. But refugee advocates say the Israeli government has been very slow to process applications for asylum. While people wait, no social services normally offered to refugees, are available.
Their Israeli-issued papers say they cannot work, although the government generally looks the other way. Many people strolling on the street outside the barbershop are men from Eritrea or Sudan. May Golan, a young Israeli woman who has lived here her whole life, says crime has risen and the quality of life fallen since the migrants arrived.
MAY GOLAN: Listen. This is never a perfect place. South Tel Aviv always had problems, but never we were afraid to go out of our house at 5 o'clock in the afternoon to buy milk. Never.
HARRIS: May believes nobody is listening to the needs of her neighborhood.
GOLAN: And the Israeli government just sits quietly, holds her ears, her eyes and her mouth. I don't get, what are they waiting for?
HARRIS: The government has done a few things that May supports. In addition to building the fence across the southern border, Israel's legislature passed a law last year that put new illegal migrants in detention for three years. But this fall, Israel's supreme court overturned that. Now the government is coming up with new plans. According to an advisor to the interior minister, Israel wants to move the tens of thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese already in the country to new so-called open detention centers while they wait for asylum claims to be processed.
Food, health care and some kind of training would be provided. People could leave during the day, but would have to sleep in the centers. It's not clear how many years they'd stay. Former lawmaker and former ambassador to the U.S., Danny Ayalon, says such an approach would serve two purposes.
DANNY AYALON: First of all, to deter other illegal work-seekers to come to Israel. And secondly, to deal with those who did infiltrate in a humane way and prepare them to go back to the countries of origins, provided of course there is no life-threatening situation for them in going back.
HARRIS: The United Nations refugee agency is advising Israel on its next steps. U.N. guidelines allow the kind of centers Israel describes if certain rights are met. Yair Sheleg, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, says one reason the government doesn't want to absorb migrants from Africa is that they're not Jewish, and this could change the country's demographics.
YAIR SHELEG: The Jewish people learned two important lessons from the Holocaust, not one. On the one hand, we learned the lesson of we should be moral, we should act morally. The other lesson is that we have to strengthen our own national state.
HARRIS: The Israeli government is also looking for a third country to take migrants and may increase payments to $5,000 for people who are willing to leave. Emily Harris, NPR News.