World Refugee Day goes unmarked in Israel

UNHCR commissioner: Rising rate of entry is big concern but comprehensive legal framework needed.

By RON FRIEDMAN
June 21, 2010 04:57
Darfurian refugees in Tel Aviv.

Darfur refugees Tel Aviv 311 AJ. (photo credit: Ariel Jerzolomiski)

While Sunday was marked around the globe as World Refugee Day, the only Israeli event, planned by a coalition of aid organizations, was canceled at the last minute.

Disagreement on terminology and lack of accurate entry registration makes determining the exact number of refugees in Israel difficult, but according to a recent Knesset Research Department report on the matter, in the beginning of May, there were 24,399 infiltrators and asylum-seekers in Israel.

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Of them, 18,959 cannot be expelled from the country, as they hail from Eritrea (13,310) and Sudan (5,649), where they may face harm if they return. The remaining ones, mostly asylum-seekers or economic migrants from central Africa, await status determination and will either be recognized as refugees or be subject to expulsion.

The report also indicates that the number of people crossing over the Egyptian border has been consistently growing. In January 866 people crossed over. In February, 904 and in March and April the numbers were 1,158 and 1,258 respectively.

William Tall, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative to Israel, said that Israel had yet to come to grips with the phenomenon of mixed migration. In a World Refugee Day interview with The Jerusalem Post, he outlined some of the challenges Israel faces.

“In the last couple of years, Israel has begun experiencing flows, similar to those in southern Europe, of mixed migration. Depending who you talk to, determines how you call them,” he said.

“Some people in the government call them infiltrators, some people call them economic migrants, some call them asylum-seekers, refugees and some say they infiltrated to do harm to Israel,” said Tall. “What’s happening is that Israel is groping for tools in how to address the issue and how to stem the flow.

“When a person comes into the country, they can become an asylum-seeker and they go through a process to determine whether they have a valid asylum claim. If they do, they become a refugee,” said Tall.

He explained that over the last year, Israel has taken over the responsibility for conducting the Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process, a job that was previously done by the UNHCR. This, said Tall, has generated mixed results.

“They are quite serious in how they approach it, but the biggest drawback in how the government is approaching RSD is that there is no legal framework in place. There are no published procedural guidelines on their work,” said Tall.

“This creates a vacuum with different interpretations on different things and I would say that the absence of a procedural framework, the absence of a refugee law to guide the work of RSD, is a big problem here in the country.”

“These people are crossing at a very significant rate and it’s causing some alarm in some areas of the government and creating such ideas as the building of a wall on the southern border or, as was floated in a recent Knesset meeting, the building of a work camp for African migrants.

“A lot of ideas are coming up, but what’s needed is some sort of comprehensive legal framework, which is missing,” said Tall. “The rate of the people coming here is a big concern to the government and I fully appreciate that concern. Israel has a lot of different issues and challenges on its plate. It doesn’t need the added one of huge mixed migration coming from Africa.”

Tall said that any people who crossed the border and were proved to be of Sudanese or Eritrean origin, received a temporary release visa, which allowed them to stay in the country. Though the visa doesn’t formally authorize them to work, work was tolerated by the Israeli authorities. Both groups are identified as likely to face persecution, torture or death if they return to their homelands.

“Our major objective in Israel now is to ensure that the asylum process here develops with integrity, that the structures are in place and that they operate according to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees. We also advocate that a refugee law will be put in place, which will ensure the integrity of the system,” said Tall.

Such a law has been promoted by the Prime Minister’s Office, but has yet to result in any legislation.

The day passed here without mention in the Knesset or the cabinet. An event organized by aid groups that was scheduled to take place in Tel Aviv, was canceled at the last minute after the organizers failed to meet the financial and operational requirements to receive police and municipal permits.

Amnesty International- Israel’s Oded Diner, said that the event, which was slated to feature Israeli authors and entertainers reading out stories penned by refugees living in Israel, would be rescheduled.

Diner said that on Friday, activists from a coalition of local refugee aid groups had teamed together and canvassed Israelis to sign protest cards protesting the government’s treatment of African migrants in Israel. The 1,700 cards they collected will be sent to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu calling on him to repeal the proposed Infiltration Protection Law, which the aid groups describe as “draconian.”

According to a February report complied by nine human rights group, “If the law is passed, the State of Israel’s obligations to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees will be annulled, refugees who never committed a crime could be jailed for up to 20 years, refugees could be deported to their home countries in a manner that could endanger their lives, and the actions carried out by aid organization employees and volunteers could be deemed criminal.”


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