Israel has for the past few years been experiencing an influx of refugees, most from Africa and many from the benighted country of Eritrea.
These refugees cross the Sinai desert and face appalling conditions with slavery reported in camps, hostage taking and potshots taken at them by Egypt’s military. Many have died. A small group of very brave human rights defenders in North Sinai have been working to save hundreds of lives there.
Since the beginning of November, about 950 migrants are known to have illegally made their way into Israel, which is a lot for a country unused to non-Jewish refugees.
In June, a Population, Immigration and Borders Authority (PIBA) representative told The Jerusalem Post there were now more than 35,000 African migrants in Israel, 80 percent of them Sudanese or Eritrean.
The arrival of refugees in a country built by refugees have resulted in some soul searching.
For nearly 2,000 years, the Jewish people were guests, refugees or asylum-seekers in other peoples’ countries. Sometimes they benefited from their hosts’ good treatment, sometimes they were expelled, discriminated against and persecuted.
Now with a sovereign country of its own the Jewish people must not only serve as a moral example of how developed countries should deal with refugees and asylum-seekers, but also make sure that a strong Jewish majority is maintained in a sovereign Jewish state.
So said the Jerusalem Post in a November 11 Editorial.
Israel has been working on building a fence. And now it is working on a law.
Although it is a signatory to the Refugee Convention, Israel does not have a refugee law. The current law up for amendment is an emergency law, the “Prevention of Infiltration Law,” originally passed in 1954 to cope with the infiltration of Arabs who the state claimed sought to sabotage Israeli security. Now new amendments are being proposed (a prior attempt was withdrawn in July 2010 after harsh public criticism).
Says Sigal Rozen, the Public Policy Coordinator of the Hotline for Migrant Workers:
While the previous bill cynically used a security claim to justify draconian measures against desperate people, the present amendment states clearly that its purpose is deterrence: “The expectation is that the detention period will stop the massive infiltration or at least minimize it,” I have heard countless politicians say.
The amended law will enable the Israeli authorities to hold in administrative detention for up to three years migrant workers and asylum seekers with their children. This is not unusual, although harsh. Australia, for example, also holds asylum seekers in detention for long periods.
However, anyone who is fleeing from a so-called “enemy” country can be held indefinitely. This can mean those refugees and their children fleeing genocide from the Darfur region of Sudan or gays fleeing Iraq. The proposed bill stipulates that persons originating from such countries or areas are not to be bailed from detention under any conditions.
The law will criminalize what it calls ‘irregular entry’ and makes no provision for those fleeing persecution. The Refugee Convention prohibits the imposition of penalties for illegal entry or presence, where a person has fled a territory because of a risk to their life or freedom.
It creates a summary removal procedure — within 72 hours — without giving the individual an adequate opportunity to challenge their deportation. Those aiding refugees could be criminally prosecuted. There is no distinction made for how children will be treated.
“one of the most dangerous bills ever presented in the Knesset.”
Israel has one of the worst records internationally for accepting asylum seekers. In the past sixty years, it has only accepted 149. Israel also has the lowest percent of requests granted for temporary, not permanent status compared to western states, under 1%.
No Sudanese or Eritreans have ever been accepted as asylum seekers. Israel also does not recognize the coverage of homosexuals under the Refugee Convention under membership of “a particular social group.” Palestinian gays fleeing persecution and even death are routinely refused asylum and sent back across the border.
The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a critical contributor to training and monitoring the Israeli i mmigration system, recently withdrew its presence in Israel in protest of Israeli treatment of asylum seekers. The US Department of State has echoed criticism of Israeli treatment of asylum seekers, condemning a lack of legal representation, lack of interpretation, in judicial hearings and extended detention.
Speaking to a Knesset Committee in 2010, Oscar, a refugee from Congo, criticized the oft-cited idea that the refugees are actually migrant workers:
“Most of the refugees I know who live in south Tel Aviv are indeed refugees who escaped danger,” he said. “We didn’t choose to be refugees. There are many children of Holocaust survivors here (in the committee) who were in a similar state as ours, and therefore they should understand us.”
Writes Jerusalem Post:
Israel, a country created in the wake of the Holocaust to be a national homeland for the Jewish people after nearly two millennia of exile among the nations of the world, has a unique moral responsibility toward refugees and asylum-seekers.
There are no easy answers. But we have an obligation to rise to the challenge.
Video by Physicians for Human Rights.
Photo by runran