The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ representative in Israel, William Tall, told The Jerusalem Post that Israel may face criticism from the international community if certain elements of the infiltration protection bill which contradict the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees are implemented.

Tall spoke at the Knesset’s Internal Affairs Committee, which held its first discussion on the proposed law on Wednesday.

The discussion of the government bill, which aims to update and augment the 1954 infiltration law, drew many participants to the committee, including a large number of MKs, human rights activists, Holocaust survivors and African asylum seekers. The proposed law has come under severe criticism from liberals who claim that it unfairly targets refugees, criminalizes aid organizations and places too much authority in the hands of soldiers.

Due to time constraints, the committee heard only half of the people scheduled to speak and the committee chairman’s spokesman said he thought there would be many debates before all the issues were resolved and the bill could proceed to second and third readings on the plenum floor.

“There were some very strong views from all directions, some were quite favorable to our position and some quite unfavorable,” said Tall. “Our position is that Israel faces the same situation as many other south-Mediterranean European countries, meaning that they have the challenges of dealing with migration flows of people, which include economic migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. This legislation is intended to address those who pose a security threat to the state. Our major concern is that this draft legislation doesn’t sufficiently clarify that refugees and asylum seekers should be exempt from the measures of the law.”

Tall said that it was insinuated in the discussion that the refugee population would indeed be exempt from the provisions, but expressed concerns that the word of the law left room for ambiguity. “The fact that the law determines that people be arrested and automatically determined infiltrators on entry, and the issue of summery punishment deportation are all contrary to the 1991 convention on treating asylum seekers.”

Tall stressed that the UNHCR fully respects every country’s right to determine its own entry procedures and protect its borders. He also commended Israel for giving temporary sanctuary for thousands of asylum seekers fleeing from prosecution in Sudan and Eritrea.

He said that his organization would continue working with the government on amending the bill, but warned that if elements in it were contrary to international agreements to which Israel was signatory – and in fact had a large part in inspiring following the Second World War – Jerusalem would attract criticism from the international community.

Criticism of the bill was also heard from internal sources. Hadash MK Dov Khenin said the bill was “dangerous, far-reaching and sinister.”

“Today it is clear to all that we are dealing with a proposal that is based on skewed facts and intimidation of the public. The factual foundation that the bill is based on is completely groundless and it is particularly worrying as this is the first statement that the government has expressed on establishing a proper refugee policy,” said Khenin. “I sincerely hope that the Knesset will curtly reject the proposal.”

Oscar Olivier, a human rights activist originally from Congo who works with Tel Aviv’s asylum seekers population, also lamented the state’s treatment of asylum seekers from Africa. Olivier, who has been living in Israel for 10 years, said the government’s main refugee policy is ambiguity. “It’s sad that the state’s strategy is so unclear. Instead of dealing with the issue of the asylum seekers, they leave them in a state of unbalance, with no definite status,” said Olivier.

Olivier said his own case was an extreme example of the situation. “I have been here for 10 years now and the state still hasn’t determined my status. With all of the new asylum seekers that have come in recent years, it will probably take 10 more years before my case is completed.”

Olivier said he suspected that the authorities were purposefully dragging their feet so as not to recognize the refugee claims of the asylum seekers. “You can be sure that if the state believed it could reject our applications, they would be far quicker in completing the process.”

Deputy Attorney-General Mike Balas assured that the bill is aimed at regulating treatment of infiltrators who pose security concerns and not refugees. He explained that the Egyptian border also serves as a route for drug dealers, sex traffickers and migrant workers and therefore only some of those who infiltrate through it are considered refugees.

“There is no intention of deviating from the convention and prosecuting refugees, we are very cautious on this issue,” said Balas. “It is important to remember that there are people who are part of smuggling rings and on the border it’s not always possible to distinguish between an infiltrator and a refugee.”

Balas also addressed the concerns of the human rights organizations regarding the parts of the bill that state that people caught aiding and abetting infiltrators would be subject to the same punishments as the infiltrators themselves (between five-20 years in prison). “Someone offering a cup of tea will not be jailed,” he said.

Also speaking at the committee were representatives from the southern towns most affected by the asylum seekers population. A resident of Arad, where five percent of the population is now made up of asylum seekers, said the influx of people had negatively affected the character of the city. She complained that the asylum seekers loitered in the city’s public places and disrupted the tranquility of the community.

Israel Beiteinu MK Fania Kirshenbaum said that refugees settling in the weaker cities pose additional burdens on local inhabitants. “I’m certain they will not be welcomed in Raanana or Herzliya,” she said. “I suggest opening an air route to Belgium or Sweden and we’ll see how European countries welcome such an amount of refugees.”

When told that Sweden had in fact accepted 600 African refugees, Kirshenbaum said she suggested they take more.

The discussions in the committee will continue in the weeks ahead. As part of its proceedings the committee members will also tour the southern border to see firsthand the routes which are used to infiltrate the country and meet with the military personnel who are supposed to enforce the proposed law.

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