Interior Minister Eli Yishai's cancellation of the controversial Gedera-Hadera policy on Thursday highlights the need for Israel to create a comprehensive and legally binding approach to helping thousands of asylum-seekers who have entered the country over the past five years, according to Anat Ben-Dor, an instructor at Tel Aviv University Law School's Refugee Rights Clinic.
A staunch critic of the government's treatment of those who arrive in Israel looking for a safe haven, Ben-Dor pointed out that in a High Court of Justice hearing on Wednesday - just hours before Yishai called on his ministry's Oz Unit to temporarily freeze its operations - government officials had virulently defended the Gedera-Hadera policy.
Set in motion a year-and-a-half ago, the Gedera-Hadera rule was aimed at preventing thousands of African asylum-seekers from settling in the Center of the country and taking jobs from Israelis. However, Yishai said on Thursday that the policy was actually more of a burden on towns in the periphery struggling with socioeconomic issues heightened by the current recession.
Following Yishai's announcement, Oz Unit spokeswoman Sabine Hadad said the unit would no longer detain asylum-seekers found in Tel Aviv. However, she drew a distinction between asylum-seekers and economic migrants and said the cancellation of policy "will have no bearing on the status of illegal foreign workers, who will be deported."
"Obviously I am delighted that [Yishai] has buckled to the pressure and made this change," Ben-Dor told The Jerusalem Post
. "However, just the fact that one day this policy was being defended and the next day it was canceled shows how badly Israel needs a real refugee policy."
She added, "These rules are just not thought out properly. There is no research and no thought as to how such policies can negatively impact the lives of thousands of people."
Even though Israel is party to the UN's Refugee Convention, since 1951 it has only recognized a total of 170 refugees, even though more than 17,000 people from Africa, who claim they cannot return to their countries of origin, have been living here since April 2007.
According to Elisheva Milikowsky, public policy and activism coordinator for ASSAF - an aid organization for refugees and asylum-seekers - until these people are confirmed as refugees, they have no clear status, no healthcare benefits and no access to any government assistance.
She said that the organization, together with a collection of other NGOs, was attempting to generate broad-based political support for a bill that could eventually set a comprehensive policy on how to deal with refugees and asylum seekers.
The law, which was drafted by Ben-Dor, among others, is very short, said Milikowsky, but it gives clear directives on how refugees should be treated both before and after their status is official.
"The fact that policies toward them are constantly changing is very scary and unsettling for these people," commented Ben-Dor, who told the Post
that the government was in the process of creating a body that would be able to look into peoples' claims that they could not return to their country of origin.
She continued, "Such legislation will hopefully put a stop to all the illegal activities that have been used to prevent refugees and asylum seekers from entering the country, including turning people back at the borders, throwing them into prison and moving them on to a third country."
Ben-Dor said she believed that Israel's policy until now seemed to have been based on a notion that "if life gets too comfortable for asylum-seekers, then many, many more will want to come here."
While a law protecting the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers is the only way forward to deal with this growing humanitarian crisis, Ben-Dor said its implementation had suffered delays due to the day-to-day battles, such as fighting the Gedera-Hadera policy and lobbying against the pending Prevention of Infiltrators bill. The bill has already passed its first reading.
"Many people do not realize how much harm this bill could do," Ben-Dor said. "It proposes to set into law the policy of turning people back at the border and wants to punish any person entering Israel illegally, without differentiating between those who might have arrived here to escape genocide."
She finished, "Before we can work on passing legislation to aid and protect refugees, we need to prevent bills such as this one from being made into law."
Yaakov Lappin contributed to this report.
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