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For the first time in its history, the Knesset began official deliberations Monday on a bill that would create a cohesive policy on the issue of refugees in Israel.
The bill, which was heavily debated in the Knesset's Committee on the Interior and Environment, would create a uniform policy for all persons who seek asylum in Israel. There have been several discussions to create such a bill, but Monday marked the first time that the Knesset seriously considered tabling such legislation.
The bill, which was drafted by a number of organizations including the Hotline for Migrant Workers and Amnesty International, was presented to MKs several weeks ago. Committee Chairman MK Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor) said that there would not be time to begin work on the bill during this Knesset session, and that he would wait until the winter session, which begins in late October, to put the bill up for an initial vote.
The lack of legislation on the refugee issue has contributed to the growing controversy over the more than 2,400 African refugees currently in Israel. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has already announced that most of those refugees will be returned to Egypt, with a small number of Sudanese allowed to remain in Israel.
The decision has been condemned by human rights organizations, who argue that the government should not make ad hoc decisions about the refugees, but should wait and establish a policy.
The Justice Ministry, Interior Ministry and Foreign Ministry are all expected to weigh in on the bill. On Monday, Interior Ministry official Yochie Gnessin told MKs that one of the main considerations was that establishing a broad refugee policy that would give asylum to anyone claiming to be in danger could present a danger to the state of Israel.
"There needs to be a standard. We cannot give asylum to some person from Syria who sets foot here just because they claim that their lives are in danger. That opens us up to all sorts of infiltrations," said Gnessin.
Meanwhile, a number of activists who have been working with the refugees sent a letter to Olmert's office, asking that the government not remove refugees from their current housing into the Ketziot Prison facilities. The government has established an interim caravan park at Ketziot, and will soon open a large "camp site" facility adjacent to the prison where it hopes to place most of the refugees.
Activists wrote that more they had found housing solutions for more than 1,000 refugees. Some of those people are working and receiving housing in Eilat, while others are in kibbutzim in southern Israel. Removing them from those situations would only be "cruel," wrote the activists.
A number of families across Israel have also taken in refugees on their own accord. Both the families and the refugees have received donations from Diaspora Jewry.