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 were right.

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 Jewish majority.

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.

And there is also the unresolved question of the Palestinian population.

The policy 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 asylumseekers.

Last month, for instance, Yishai declared that he would arrest asylum-seekers from Eritrea and northern Sudan “until I can expel them.”

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 figures.

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 defeated.

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.

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