Be fair to African refugees

The law lumps together genuine asylum-seekers with those who come here for better living standards.

african refugees 224.88 (photo credit:)
african refugees 224.88
(photo credit: )
The Knesset overwhelmingly approved last month the first reading of a government-sponsored bill meant to address the illegal infiltration into Israel of thousands of African refugees. The bill would replace a 1954 law and make it easier to deport most of the illegals. The old law was aimed mostly at Palestinian Arabs from Gaza and the West Bank who, in the years after Israel's independence, stole across the 1949 Armistice Lines to kill and rob - or sometimes simply to see their old homes. But since 2006, when the first group of African refugees crossed from the Egyptian Sinai into the Negev - and a trickle turned into a flood - the government has made rewriting the law a priority, the idea being to de-link refugee infiltration from Arab terrorism. The proposed law would redefine an infiltrator as one who enters the country illegally by avoiding the official border crossings - even if the purpose isn't terrorism. Another law already deals with foreigners who enter the country legally but overstay their permits. WHILE THE approximately 10,000 Africans who have come to Israel illegally in the past several years pose no overt security threat, neither can they be easily absorbed. And since most of these people are not seeking political asylum, "merely" a better life, Israel has no moral obligation to them. We do not want our small country overrun by an unending flood of desperate foreigners. And yet as a Jewish state, we cannot easily avert our eyes from their plight. The current situation is plainly untenable. Thousands of refugees have "settled" in Tel Aviv shelters and parks, trying to survive under abysmal conditions; others remain incarcerated. Some 1,500 are legally employed in Eilat hotels or in kibbutzim. While 3,000 refugees come from southern Sudan, only a minority are reportedly genuine refugees from the horrors of Darfur. ISRAEL HAS every right to prohibit anyone who has entered the country illegally from remaining here - unless they meet the rather vague criteria established by the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Still, Israel has a basic obligation to treat humanely even those who do not meet those criteria. Regrettably, the bill in question does not guarantee the rights of bona-fide refugees under international human rights law, nor does it propose to treat those who do not qualify as refugees as humanely as possible. The law would allow anyone caught infiltrating into Israel to be imprisoned for five years. If they come from a designated enemy state - and Sudan is on that special list - they can be sentenced to seven years. Thus a refugee from Darfur faces seven years' imprisonment, even though it is clear that many of these people would be gravely endangered if forced to return to their homeland. In other words, the bill would require all infiltrators to be expelled from Israel as quickly as possible - or go to jail. The bill's most serious flaw is the absence of a guarantee that anyone who crosses our border will have the opportunity to apply for refugee status in accordance with the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Moreover, it legalizes "hot return," allowing the security forces to forcibly expel any illegal across the border within 72 hours of infiltration. Such a procedure violates international law, which makes it illegal "to expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened." SIMPLY PUT, the law lumps together the minority of genuine asylum-seekers with the bulk of those who have come here illegally in search of a better standard of living. That may be convenient, but it is unacceptable. Furthermore, the bill treats even economic refugees in contravention to international law. We embrace the bill's goal of creating "a deterrence against entering Israel without going through the border crossings." That said, the drafters of the law need to revisit their legislation to make absolutely certain that, while protecting Israel's legitimate interests, it complies with international law - and with Jewish values.