The echo of Trumpist anti immigration policy in Israel and Saudi Arabia - Al Jazeera Center for Studies


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The echo of Trumpist anti immigration policy in Israel and Saudi Arabia

The timing and the political boldness demonstrated by both Israel and Saudi Arabia in implementing their respective recent crackdown on illegal migrants could have been influenced by Trump’s immigration politics.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018 16:34 GMT

sraeli authorities rounded up dozens of African migrants slated for deportation, as the government weighs tough penalties against Israelis who help illegal aliens. [activestills]


The debate on global immigration and the plight of refugees has dominated politics and shaped electoral campaigns in several countries in recent times.  Many right wing organisations particularly in Europe continue to campaign under the banner of anti-immigration.  Marine Le Pen’ National Front in France is perhaps the most prominent example in this regard in Europe.  Le Pen has shown little tolerance of illegal immigrants, she argues that illegal immigrants “have no reason to stay in France, these people broke the law the minute they set foot on French soil".  The president of the United States (US) Donald Trump has also been very vocal in his resolve to restrict migration into the US.  His political rhetoric during his presidential campaign pivoted around building the wall in the Southern boarder of the US with Mexico and banning Muslims from entering the US.  Days after his inauguration in January 2017 Donald Trump signed the Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry executive order.  The order is aimed at limiting people from certain Muslim majority countries from entering the US.  Subsequently Trump signed two executive orders in this regard, the order directing the construction of a wall on the US-Mexico border, boosting border patrol forces and increasing the number of immigration enforcement officers who carry out deportations.   The second order aims at stripping sanctuary cities of federal grant funding and announced sweeping new criteria that could make many more undocumented immigrants priorities for deportation (1).  His immigration politics have been criticized widely across the globe.  Moreover inside the US Donald Trump has been facing a barrage of criticisms including his intention of cancelling the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program also known as DACA.  The program allowed some individuals who entered the country as minors, and had either entered or remained in the country illegally to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and to be eligible for a work permit.  The stand - off on DACA last month led to a three-day government shutdown.  

The last visit of Donald Trump to Saudi Arabia and Israel has highlighted a new political convergence between these countries.  In September 2017 reports emerged that Saudi Arabia was planning to “accept Israel as a brotherly state” (2).  Furthermore the reported visit of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad Bin Salman to Israel and the regular visits of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son in law and senior advisor gives credence to that argument.  The visit has also arguably triggered and encouraged a number of actions in Saudi Arabia and Israel, amongst those are the blockading of Qatar by the three Gulf nations and Egypt, intensified attacks in Yemen and indeed cracking down on African immigrants.  Subsequently Saudi Arabia and Israel have over the past months engaged in their own migration reforms.  On 19 March 2017 the Saudi Arabian Interior Ministry launched a campaign dubbed ‘A Nation Without Violations’, to give residency and labour law violators 90 days to leave the country without having to face penalties.  According to the campaign will likely lead to the exit of at least 1 million violators, saying this “would revive the economies of companies and establishments and protect small businesses and projects from illegal expats, while also reducing unemployment rates and creating a safe economic and social environment (3).  Similarly Israel's plan to forcibly expel African asylum seekers has sparked anger, with protests planned worldwide in coming weeks.  This week, the Israeli government issued deportation notices to 20,000 male asylum seekers, Reuters news agency reported, giving them 60 days to leave the country or face indefinite detention (4).  Human rights groups have criticized the manner in which both these countries have been dealing with illegal migrants and have questioned the timing of events in these countries.  The international human rights organisation Human Rights Watch has called on Israeli to abandon a new policy that could lead to the indefinite detention of thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese nationals for refusing to leave Israel.  This paper argues that the timing and the political boldness demonstrated by both Israel and Saudi Arabia in implementing their respective recent crackdown on illegal migrants could have been influenced by Trump’s immigration politics. 

Cracking down on African immigrants in Israel

Israel has been engaged in controversial immigration reforms over the years.  The cracking down on immigrants has invited widespread condemnation.  What has caught the attention of many human rights organisation is the willingness of Israel to violate some of its international commitments regarding immigrants and refugees.  There were 27,018 Eritreans and 7,731 Sudanese in Israel as of March 2017, according to the Population, Immigration and Boarders Authority (PIBA). Since 2013 about 14000 have left Israel, including as a result of government measures against asylum seekers involving prolonged or indefinite detention, which Israel’s High Court has twice ruled it unlawful(5). According to Human Rights Watch detention is arbitrary under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) if a country detains someone for deportation when there is no realistic prospect of deporting them. Arbitrary indefinite detention may also constitute inhuman and degrading treatment in breach of Israel’s obligations under the ICCPR and the UN Convention Against Torture Israel is a signatory to the UN convention on refugees which obligates it to make the asylum application process accessible.  Israel owes it existence and legitimacy at least to some, from providing refuge to the persecuted European Jewry albeit at the expense of the Palestinians.  After the establishment of Israel, the country encouraged migration of the world global Jewry as it forged ahead with the entrenchment of a Jewish state.  Amongst those who migrated to Israel in the early days were the Ethiopian Jews.  There is an estimated 125 000 Ethiopian Jews who are citizens of Israel.  Many took advantage of the Law of Return which allows Jewish diaspora from any nation a right of return to Israel.  The migration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel has encouraged other Africans especially those from the Horn of Africa to Israel as tales of a better life in Israel spread.  Israel has therefore over they years become a place of choice and refuge for most migrants from the Horn of Africa.  The influx of immigrants to Israel was a huge public relations boon to the state which is compared to an “apartheid state”.  The influx amplified claims by Israel that it was indeed “the only thriving democracy in the Middle East”.  Several countries in the Horn of Africa are entangled in civil wars and the economic situations have stagnated due to political instability and lack of foreign investments.  According to the Immigration and Population Authority of Israel, as of February 2017 more than 22,000 asylum requests were awaiting processing, most of them were from citizens of Ukraine, Georgia, Eritrea and Sudan (6). Israel has a lenient immigration and refugee regime compared to many countries in the Middle East.  According to the international law Israel is prohibited from deporting Eritreans and Sudanese.  Many of the migrants are seeking asylum status under the United Nations Convention Relation to the Status of Refugees.  Under international law, Eritrea citizens cannot be deported due to the opinion of the UNHCR that Eritrea has a difficult internal situation and therefore the Eritrean immigrants are defined as a "temporary humanitarian protection group". Regarding Sudanese migrants, Israeli law is unable to execute deportation of Sudanese directly back to Sudan because Israel has no diplomatic ties to Sudan.  

Israel has undertaken to expelled over 35 000 African migrants in the next coming weeks.  Most of those targeted are Eritreans and Sudanese migrants who are currently in that country illegally.  The government has offered those who voluntarily leave the country a plane ticket and 3500 USD in cash.  The Population and Immigration Authority of Israel has vowed to jail illegal migrants who refuse to leave (7).  The economy has been slowing down in Israel over the years.  Furthermore the public outcry and complains about African migrants has also put the Israel government under pressure.  There are a number of Israelis who fear that uncontrolled migration will in future threaten the viability of a Jewish state.  That coupled with Palestinian expansion inside Israel has intensified the calls for Israeli government to act swiftly in limiting the flow of migrants.  The situation lays bare a central tension for Israel, which has both a particular obligation to protect Jews and a general responsibility to represent Jewish values to the world (8).  The latest crackdown on African migrants in Israel has led to wider criticism.  It is not the first time Israel has attracted the ire of the international community regarding its treatment of African migrants.  There are continued reports of racism and discrimination against Ethiopian migrants and other Africans in Israel.   In 1995 thousands of Ethiopian “Jews clashed with the police in a protest over the news that blood they donated was secretly dumped because of fear that it was contaminated with the virus that causes AIDS”.  Israel is not the only country in the region which has upped its immigration measures against Africans.  Hundred of illegal African particular Ethiopians migrants in Saudi Arabia are fearing deportation, fines or even jail as Riyadh promises to crack down on illegal migrants. 

Saudi Arabia expels thousands of Ethiopian migrants

Saudi Arabia has not endorsed any international treaty on human rights, migration and refugees.  It has as a result over the years managed to get away with a number of violations.  Over 9 million migrant workers fill manual, clerical, and service jobs, this constitute more than half the workforce in Saudi Arabia.  Some employers illegally confiscate passports, withhold wages, and force migrants to work against their will (9).   The targeting of Ethiopian migrants was intensified by the political disagreement between Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia on the blockade against Qatar.  Qatar, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt are leading a socio-economic and political blockade against the state of Qatar.  Ethiopia refused to support the blockade when it was approached by Saudi Arabia during the Africa Union (AU) meeting in Addis Ababa in 2017.  According to Sheik Mohammed bin Abdurrahman the Foreign Minister of Qatar “the four countries mobilised all of their officials on the continent at the beginning of the blockade to pressure African states to adopt the same measures as them". Ethiopians have been migrating to Saudi Arabia for a very long time.  The immigration of Ethiopians to Saudi Arabia could be traced to the advent of Islam, geographical proximity and the historical pursuit of business opportunities.  Ethiopians were welcomed to Saudi Arabia during the economic boom, however over the years things have changed.  Life in Saudi Arabia has become difficult for Ethiopians and African immigrants in general.  The expulsion of Ethiopian “illegal immigrants” is not new in Saudi Arabia, however under Bin Salman the situation has gotten worse.  Since March 2017, 70,000 illegal Ethiopian migrants have been expelled from the Gulf kingdom as it seeks to reduce its reliance on millions of migrant laborers (10). The introduction of Vision 2030, an ambitious socio-economic development plan has led to a number of changes in the country.  Vision 2030 aims at amongst others driving Saudis particularly its youth and women into active economic participation by 2030.  Therefore in order to realize that objective something had to be done to reduce the number of African immigrants and reliance on African immigrants to perform menial work as earlier stated.  The population of Saudi Arabia is estimated at 27 million Saudis, 19.11% are between the age of 15 and 24.  Besides challenges presented by Vision 2030 the plight of African migrants was exacerbated by other socio-political factors. There has been an increase in cases of maltreatment and racism against Africans in Saudi Arabia.  In April 2015 a young Saudi boy posted a selfie mocking an African migrant girl picking through rubbish in Jeddah.  The video which should have ordinarily invited a blanket condemnation, actually received a mixed reactions in the social media.  What the video communicated and its subsequent reaction in the social media was the prevailing attitude towards the African immigrants in that country. 


Trump’s polarizing rhetoric, impunity and rashness in tackling immigration reform in the US and intensified synchronization of similar actions in Israel and Saudi Arabia are not coincidental but suspicious.  Trump’s position on immigration has presented opportunities for both countries particularly Israel to deal with their own migration challenges.  Back in 2016, his opponents scoffed at the feasibility of building a wall along the southern boarder of the U.S.  When was asked about it by Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto Trump was ready for the question. "Look at Israel," was his response, "Bibi Netanyahu told me the wall works." (11).  Human Right Watch worries that many thousands of Ethiopians who should have refugee protection in Saudi Arabia could be forcibly returned home to face the persecution they fled (12).  In 2016 thousands of Indian migrant labors were left without pay and accommodation for months when Saudi Oger, a company owned by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was in financial difficulties.  Israel on the other hand seems determined to ignore its international commitment in dealing with its own migration challenges. Despite the restrictiveness of Israel’s migration ideology and policy, the phenomenon of labor migration emerged relatively quickly but without garnering substantial opposition (13). In conclusion, the US continues to be a political compass for both Saudi Arabia and Israel, it has an overwhelming influence in the politics of both countries.  Under Trump Israel and Saudi Arabia seem to have found a new ally after years of an unwilling president Barak Obama.  It is therefore not farfetched to assume that whenever a political opportunity appears as a consequence of Trump’s politics, both these countries will use that to justify and give legitimacy to their own actions.  The cracking down on African migrants in these countries is a perfect demonstration. 

About the author

Head of Research Relations at Al Jazeera Centre for Studies.


1- (2017) Jeremy Diamond, Trump orders construction of border wall, boast deportation force, CNN Politics, , (accessed 17 February 2017)

2- (2017) Middle East Monitor, Saudi to “accept Israel as a brotherly state” , , (accessed 14 February 2018) 

3- (2017) Bram Frouws, Mass deportations looming: Saudi Arabia gears to expel millions of migrants again, Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat - East Africa and Yemen, (accessed 21 February 2018)

4- ((2018) Jillian Kestler – D’Amours, Rallies against Israel’s refugee removal plan expected, Al Jazeera English, (accessed 21 February 2018)

5- Human Rights Watch, Israel: Don’t lock up asylum seekers, (accessed 21 February 2018)

6- (2017) Ilan Lior, Israel restricts asylum requests despite being signatory to UN refugee conventions, Hareetz, , (accessed 17 Febraury 2017)

7- (2018) Daniel Gordis, Israel move to expel 35 000 migrants is wrong, The Peninsula Newspaper, page 9, 13 February 2018

8- (2018) Emma Green, African deportations are creating a religious controversy in Israel, The Atlantic, , (accessed 14 February 2018)

9- (2017) Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia – Events of 2016, , (accessed 17 February 2018)

10-  (2017) Thembisa Fakude, The predicament of Ethiopian immigrants in Saudi Arabia, The Middle East Monitor, , (accessed 14 February 2018)

11- Zev Chafets, Israel’s immigration crisis is a lesson for Trump, (accessed 21 February 2018) 

12- (2017) Felix Horne, Why Saudi Arabia must halt the deportation of half a million Ethiopians, Human Rights Watch, , (accessed 14 February 2018) 

13- (2003) Sarah Willen, International Review on International Migrations Vol. 19 Number 3, Perspective on Labour migration in Israel, , (accessed 17 February 2018) 


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