sudanese refugees 311.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file[)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has announced (again) that Israel is about to
begin building a barrier along its 266-kilometer Sinai border with
Egypt. The fence is expected to cost some NIS 1.35 billion and will
include a host of hi-tech elements, including radar.
If it is for real
this time, this is a very positive development which will curtail the worrying
rise in refugees and asylum-seekers infiltrating the border. In recent years
Israeli cities – especially Eilat and Arad – have been inundated with waves of
arrivals from Eritrea, Sudan, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Ghana.
Many make their way to Israel via Egypt not because they suffer persecution, but
simply because they are looking for a better life for themselves.
2009, there were a total of 17,736 refugees and 4,144 asylum seekers in Israel –
over 17,000 just from Eritrea and Sudan. If in 1998 only 106 refugees and
asylum- seekers entered, the number jumped to 7,681 in 2008. This presents a
demographic threat to a country struggling to maintain a significant Jewish
majority while providing equal rights to a large Arab minority, making up some
20% of the population, which identifies religiously and culturally with an
overwhelming Arab majority that surrounds Israel.
Palestinian refugee issue is another threat to a Jewish majority, as is the
presence of about 200,000 foreign workers. Furthermore, Israel faces the
challenge of absorbing 8,000 Ethiopian Falash Mura, in addition to immigrants
from many other countries.
BUT IN addition to building a barrier, which
is likely to take well over a year to complete, it is imperative that our
political leaders revamp Israeli policy vis-a-vis refugees and asylum-seekers.
As a recent study by the Metzilah Center entitled “Managing Global Migration”
noted, Israel is probably the only western democracy without legislation
governing their treatment.
Israel, a country created in the wake of the
Holocaust to be a national homeland for the Jewish people after nearly two
millennia of exile, has a unique moral responsibility to refugees and
asylum-seekers. Government leadership must take immediate steps to adopt a
transparent, uniform policy that ensures fair and humane treatment.
light of the extraordinary challenges it has faced since its founding, Israel’s
record is pretty good in this area. Already in 1954, Israel signed the 1951
International Convention on the Status of Refugees. In addition, Israel upholds
the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits returning refugees to their
country of origin where they might suffer persecution on the basis of race,
ethnicity, nationality or political activities. And in July 2009 Israel took
over responsibility for determining the status of asylum-seekers and refugees
from the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees.
However, while it is a
signatory to the Convention on the Status of Refugees, Israel has yet to put in
place the necessary legal infrastructure for implementing the convention’s
principles. As a result, Israel’s refugee and asylum- seeker policy lacks any
structure. Processing of requests is done in an ad-hoc way by bodies such as the
IDF which are not trained for the job.
Nor has Israel set up arbitration
bodies with expertise in immigration law. As long as the numbers of refugees and
asylum-seekers remained small, these lacunae were not critical. But the status
quo has become unbearable. Refugees and asylum-seekers are forced to wait
on average 33 months to have their status determined. In the meantime, they are
often held in limbo in bad conditions in compounds such as the Saharonim camp on
the Egyptian border.
AMID THE concerns over demographic threats to the
Jewish majority, Israel’s political leadership must take steps to expedite the
processing of requests for asylum. Israel should not be expected to
absorb the thousands every year who manage to infiltrate its borders.
new border fence is a long-overdue means of grappling with that problem. At the
same time, those who are here, if waiting to be transferred to a third country
or returned to their country of origin when safe, should be provided with
adequate living conditions.
For nearly 2,000 years the Jewish people were
guests, refugees or asylum-seekers in other peoples’ countries. They
often benefited from their hosts, but were also expelled, discriminated against
Now with a sovereign state of its own, the Jewish people
has the imperative both to ensure that a strong Jewish majority is maintained in
the sovereign Jewish state, and to serve as a moral example of how developed
countries should treat refugees and asylum-seekers.