liberian refugee 88.
(photo credit: )
Liberian refugees in Israel were granted a brief respite Wednesday when an Interior Ministry representative told them that they would not be deported back to Liberia on March 31.
The Liberian refugees have been living in Israel for upwards of 17 years, following a UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) declaration that Liberia was an unsafe country. Last year, the UNHCR rescinded that determination following the successful free election of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
Some countries, including Switzerland and France, have already sent the refugees that they took in back to Liberia. Johnson-Sirleaf, however, has asked that the international community give Liberia more time to rebuild and calm the racial tensions that remain following their 14-year civil war, before allowing the refugees to return.
The Israeli government had already announced that the 86 Liberian refugees, who live and work in the Tel Aviv area, would be expelled by March 31. On Wednesday, however, a representative of Interior Minister Roni Bar-On stressed that the ministry had not made an "official decision" to extend the deadline, but rather a "bureaucratic decision" to take several months to examine all of the refugees' individual requests before forcing anyone to leave.
"We are currently evaluating all of the requests for an extension that have arrived at our office. This process will take months. At least two months, possibly three. No one will be forced to leave until we finish this process," the Interior Ministry representative told the Knesset Interior Committee.
Half a dozen of the refugees, their lawyer, and members of Physicians for Human Rights gathered in the committee to discuss the ways in which the refugees' stays in Israel could be extended. MK Gilad Erdan (Likud) initiated the discussion after he spoke with representatives of the refugees.
"The committee will recommend that the Interior Ministry extend the stay of the refugees until the end of the year,' said Committee Chairman Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor). "If other countries are letting the refugees stay an extra six months, then Israel should be leading the world and letting them stay one year. We are a country that should understand what it is to be a refugee."
Ran Cohen, a representative for Physicians for Human Rights, said that most of the refugees wanted to return to Liberia.
"They want to be given enough time to evaluate if the situation in Liberia is safe," said Cohen.
Malasmas Delmacia, a refugee who has been living in Israel for more than 10 years, spoke to the committee in the name of all the refugees and said that while they were "proud and grateful" that Israel took them in, they had no intention of trying to receive Israeli citizenship.
"Already, two from our community have returned to Liberia. They were both killed. We are afraid that this fate will await us too if you send us back now," said Delmacia.
She explained that most of the refugees in Israel are part of the Mandingo tribe, which was persecuted and accused of not being "real Liberians" during the civil war.
"We have seen our family members shot, our sisters and mothers raped, and our brothers mutilated," said Delmacia. "This is the nightmare we too live with. We want nothing more but to continue living here peacefully until we can return to our country to live their peacefully."
A UNHCR representative told the committee that the UN "had no place" interfering with Israel's decision on the matter, and that it was "an internal Israeli decision to make." Meanwhile, a Foreign Ministry representative said that the government did not know enough about the current situation in Liberia.
"At one point a letter was sent to our officeâ€¦ to request that the stay of the Liberians be extended. That was determined to be forged. The signature was forged. This has complicated the issue and created mistrust," said the Foreign Ministry representative.
Ari Syrquin, the lawyer representing the Liberians, said that he had official letters in his possession issued to the Foreign Ministry with the same request. He suggested that the Foreign Ministry did not have enough information on the situation to make an accurate evaluation.
As part of the committee's findings, the Foreign Ministry will issue a full report on the current status of Liberia to the Interior Committee and Interior Ministry. After that report is issued, said Paz-Pines, the ministry and the committee will reconvene to issue a decision on the deadline.