For about a week, 21 Eritrean asylum-seekers languished on the wrong side of our
newly constructed fence along the Egyptian border.
Apparently too scared
to backtrack through Sinai, a lawless territory where refugees (usually
Eritreans) are regularly subjected to torture, sexual assault and being sold as
slaves, the 21 asylum-seekers figured they had a better chance of surviving if
they waited it out until Israel caved in and allowed them to enter. And they
Inevitably, pressure built for Israel to permit the asylum-
seekers to enter, and on Thursday evening, it was announced that two women, one
of whom suffered a miscarriage, and a 14-year-old boy would be allowed into
Israel to receive medical treatment. The rest would have to stay on the Egyptian
side of the border.
From a public relations perspective, the situation is
a nightmare. Rightly or wrongly, Israel will be held responsible for forcing the
Eritreans to remain exposed to the brutal desert elements for more than a week.
Little, if any, mention will be made in the international media of the
tremendous demographic challenges facing Israel as it struggles to maintain a
In addition to about 60,000 infiltrators – half of them
Eritreans – already in Israel, the Jewish state must also cope with integrating
Israeli Arabs who make up about a fifth of the population in addition to over a
million migrants from Ethiopians and the former Soviet Union.
is also the unresolved question of the Palestinian population.
adopted by the IDF of preventing access to the 21 Eritreans is not helping
Israeli public diplomacy.
As the local and international media looked on
this morning, the IDF blocked a contingent of physicians from Physicians for
Human Rights from reaching them.
It is difficult not to empathize with
Dr. Kobi Arad, one of the physicians, who claimed that it made absolutely no
sense to prevent doctors from examining the Eritreans and offering medical
assistance if need be.
Undoubtedly, the IDF is providing the Eritreans
with food, water, shelter and medical care. Why shouldn’t Physicians for Human
Rights and other NGOs be allowed to witness this firsthand? Also, recent
problematic statements made by Interior Minister Eli Yishai have caused
tremendous damage to Israel’s image and have probably aroused suspicion in the
international community that Israel is intending to trample the basic rights of
Last month, for instance, Yishai declared that he would
arrest asylum-seekers from Eritrea and northern Sudan “until I can expel
However, expelling Eritreans would violate international law. Most
of the hundreds of thousands of Eritreans who have left their country seeking
asylum did so to escape the dictatorial regime’s policy of forced conscription
into the military or the national service where Eritreans are used as slave
labor. Those who are repatriated face persecution for draft-dodging. That is why
in 2010, the United Kingdom granted 66 percent of Eritrean applicants refugee
status, Germany 83%, Switzerland 72% and Canada 96%, according to UNHCR
Admittedly, there are no easy answers. If the Eritreans still on
the Egyptian side of the border remain outside Israel’s border fence and Israel
continues to provide them with food, water, shelter and medical care, additional
asylum-seekers will join them and within a short time we will have camps of
asylum-seekers stationed on our borders.
On the other hand, if the
Eritreans are allowed to enter Israel, it might set a problematic precedent. The
whole purpose of a multi-billion-shekel border fence will be
But the lesser of the two evils appears to be to allow these
Eritreans to enter Israel while continuing to do everything possible to dissuade
future asylum-seekers from flooding our borders.
Thanks to the border
fence, there has been a sharp drop in infiltrations from the south. In August,
just 200 migrants managed to cross our border with Egypt compared to 2,000 in
the same month last year.
As long as Israel and other free, economically
prosperous countries exist alongside repressive dictatorships such as Eritrea,
there will be asylum-seekers. We can and have significantly reduced their
numbers, but we will never eliminate the phenomenon.