african immigrants 298.8.
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sent a clear message to the security forces on Sunday: Make a more concerted effort to locate African "infiltrators" crossing the border from Egypt, and stop them, using "reasonable force" if necessary.
This is the government's immediate strategy to deal with what the PM calls a "tsunami" of African refugees streaming into Israel, an estimated 7,000 in the past year, accelerating to some 2,400 in just the past three months.
If only it was that simple. To start with, one has to wonder what constitutes "reasonable force" in dealing with African refugees comprised in large part of women and children. After demanding of Cairo for more than a year to do a better job of policing their side of the border, the Egyptians have indeed responded of late with their version of reasonable force - with the result being some half-dozen shot dead in the desert the last few months.
Public Security Minister Avi Dichter wants to grant our army "authorization to send the infiltrators back at the Egyptian border," even if this requires changing existing Israeli law. Perhaps he should be equally concerned with international law, which rightly says that distinctions must be made between migrants simply seeking better economic conditions, and political refugees whose lives might be risk if they are not granted at least temporary asylum.
The Africans crossing from Sinai include both categories, with the latter being refugees from the genocidal terror now under way in Sudan's Darfur region. The Israeli government has already recognized this distinction, granting temporary resident status to some 500 Africans recognized as Darfur refugees. It is hard to see though how IDF troops stationed at the Sinai border will be able to make this distinction on the spot.
And even if the border could be hermetically sealed, that wouldn't be the end of the problem.
"If they can't come by land, it's likely the Africans will start arriving by boat," says Yonatan Glaser of B'Tzedek, a non-governmental organization whose social justice agenda includes the African refugee issue.
"Some 300,000 Africans crossed into Europe by boats last year, and Israel is deluding itself if it thinks it's immune to that problem."
Glaser isn't against closing the Egyptian border route; in fact, he welcomes the long-delayed plan to build a Sinai fence, which would "help on other social issues, such as the traffic in drugs and women." But he adds that the refugee issue can only be handled effectively by a "comprehensive, coherent, and sustainable policy" that involves more than just turning away people at the border.
Glaser welcomed Olmert's call yesterday for the Foreign Ministry and other official bodies to start looking for help in placing some of the refugees here in third-party nations, preferably in Africa, and points out that some local NGOs working in this field have already begun making such contacts abroad.
He points out though that this policy would be easier to implement if Israel would also show more of a willingness to absorb at least some of the refugees.
"If we're going to shut the door at the border, we should also at least open a window elsewhere," says Glaser. "We should not be asked to take in more than is our responsibility, but neither should we be unwilling to take in less."
The government has already taken a small step in this direction, by identifying some 500 of the Africans as genuine refugees from Darfur and granting them temporary resident status, while giving another 2,000 Africans temporary work permits. Glaser suggests that if the government were to show a willingness to accept somewhere in the area of 5,000 African refugees on a semi-permanent basis, "then we could prioritize among those already here, or who come in, as to which are the really deserving ones, and develop a coherent policy on their status." Such a stance would provide this country with a greater moral authority in dealing with this problem - which could prove helpful in seeking solutions that involve the international community, including assistance from relevant refugee-assistance agencies.
Beyond the practical considerations, there are also ethical values at stake. That's especially so when it involves those Darfurians who made their way here fleeing, first, the genocidal wrath of the Sudanese Janjaweed militia, and then the onerous conditions they subsequently encountered in Egypt.
Among them is Ismail Ahmed, who fled from Sudan to Egypt in 2002, after his adolescent daughter was wounded in a Janjaweed raid on their Darfur village. Educated and fluent in English, Ahmed's situation in Egypt became problematic when he started to speak out on the treatment of Sudanese refugees there.
Last summer Ahmed and his family crossed into Israel from Sinai with the aid of Beduin smugglers. His story made the local media after they were subsequently "adopted" by a Jewish family in Jerusalem, although Ahmed's identity remained anonymous then due to his uncertain status.
No longer. As one of the Darfur refugees given temporary residency, he and his family today live in Tel Aviv, where he works for an animation and design company. He also helped start a local group called Bnai Darfur, which works with the authorities and international organizations to identify and assist other such Sudanese among the African refugees.
Although he says only about half of the Darfurians have thus far been given resident status, Ahmed credits the government for what it has done for him and others.
"I fully understand the concerns the government has about the African refugees," he says. "Rather than criticizing Israel, the international community, especially the UN, should be doing more to help it deal with the situation." He warns though that more will come, especially from Darfur. "The situation in Egypt is very bad, and people will risk death rather than continue to live in the conditions they are put in there." As for his own future, Ahmed admits that if he could be permitted to make his life here, he would.
"I was raised in Sudan to believe that Israelis are devils. Instead, I found a people are who open, tolerant and generous, in a way I never knew."
How generous? In the coming months Israel may indeed have to "shut the door" on the African exodus at the Sinai border, as the PM insists. But if at the same time it cannot open a window to at least some of those who risked their lives in coming here - such as Ahmed Ismail - then the failure of this country's refugee policy will surely be far deeper than just on the practical level.