Call them asylum-seekers or refugees, infiltrators or migrants, no matter how
you choose to define them, Africans, particularly Eritreans, are flooding over
our borders at a rapid rate.
According to figures just released by the
Population, Immigration and Borders Authority (PIBA), about 950 migrants are
known to have illegally made their way into Israel since the beginning of
Last weekend alone, some 620 Africans are known to have crossed
our border with Egypt. In June, a PIBA representative told The Jerusalem Post
there were more than 35,000 African migrants in Israel, 80 percent of them
Sudanese or Eritrean. Since then estimates of the number of Africans who have
penetrated the border monthly range from around 500 to 2,000.
Work on a
five-meter-high fence covered with barbed wire that will close off a
230-kilometer section along our border with Egypt is progressing rapidly. So far
65 km. has been erected. An additional 40 km. will be finished by the end of the
year and the entire fence is slated to be completed by September 2012. But the
question remains, what is to be done in the meantime? And even after the fence
and the accompanying sophisticated radar systems are in place, we might continue
to see illegal migration, if not from Egypt then from our lengthy border with
Jordan or by sea.
In addition to building a barrier, therefore, it is
imperative that our political leaders revamp Israeli policy vis-a-vis refugees
and asylum-seekers. As a study by the Metzilah Center titled Managing Global
Migration noted, Israel is probably the only Western democracy without
legislation governing the treatment of refugees and
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. And our country has so far maintained a good record
on refugees and asylumseekers.
Already in 1954, Israel signed the 1951
Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which upholds the principle of
non-refoulement prohibiting the return of refugees to their country of origin
where they might suffer persecution on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality
or political activities.
The Jewish state has strictly adhered to the
But, unfortunately, we have yet to put in place the necessary
legal infrastructure for implementing the convention's principles. As a result,
Israel’s refugee and asylum-seeker policy lacks uniformity and
Processing of requests is done in an ad hoc way. No
arbitration bodies with expertise in immigration law have been created. Migrants
often remain in a state of limbo for years, and many begin working illegally in
jobs that could be filled by Israelis.
It seems clear that a large
percentage of the African migrants making their way into Israel are seeking
economic opportunities, not refuge or asylum. One way of discouraging these
sorts of migrants would be to eliminate the incentive for coming, by prohibiting
their employment. However, banning the employment of African migrants would
result in a severe humanitarian crisis.
On the other hand, legislation
passed by the Knesset in a first reading in March, which empowers the state to
imprison migrants – some of whom might be refugees or asylum-seekers – in a
detention facility where basic living conditions could be provided to those
prohibited from working appears to violate the 1951 Convention Relating to the
Status of Refugees.
There are no easy answers. But we have an obligation
to rise to the challenge. 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.
It is time for
the government to hear the alarm bells, wake up and do something!