There are 500,000 Ethiopians living in Ethiopia. Some are Ethiopians who were born in Ethiopia, but some have fled elsewhere in Africa and spent years as “economic migrants” in Israel.
These migrants have been labeled as “Arabs” by Israel, but they are African Jews and live under Israel’s law of return, which essentially grants them citizenship. Israel has been lobbying hard to slow down the outflow of immigrants, as it recognizes that Ethiopians will likely make up a significant portion of its long-term immigrant population. It also wants to increase settlement in the area.
In 2012, Israel promised to bring 20,000 “economic migrants” from Ethiopia to Israel by 2015. So far, it has brought 8,000, according to the Israel office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. From the other half of the promised target, Israel has chosen to grant status to 6,900. Many of the migrants are not refugees, but rather economic migrants, who are counted as such for the purposes of Israel’s refugee law. Although the country does not officially track the new arrivals, a joint report by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and UNICEF, says there are 14,135 as of last August. The number is expected to increase.
In an interesting addendum to a report published by the Jewish Agency and the Central Bureau of Statistics of Israel on “Housing and Social Security,” it said that between 2007 and 2012, Israel counted 18,668 homeless people in its prisons. At the beginning of the financial year in 2012, the total was 15,066 homeless people. The actual number of homeless people remains a mystery.
The JTA found that of the 8,000 people who came to Israel as “economic migrants” between 2012 and 2014, only 53 percent arrived from Ethiopia. Of those coming from Ethiopia, 16 percent are children.
Many migrants receive social benefits, according to the report, including a host of programs that give the migrants food and shelter.
Last week, hundreds of the migrants participated in a pilgrimage to Israel’s Mount of Olives, as they regularly do, to bring thanksgiving for the services they have received.
“These people make up a very small part of the Ethiopian population in Israel,” the Rev. Neal Brennan, national coordinator of the clergy group The Evangelical Immigration Table, told JTA. “They have made the difficult journey. They live very meagerly. They come into Israel homeless, take in train stations and shelters and often live without shelter.”
But the Ethiopians are also an under-represented minority in Israel, a situation exacerbated by the fact that they currently make up only about 15 percent of the nation’s population.