Border imperatives

With its own sovereign state, Jewish people has the imperative to serve as moral example of how developed countries should treat refugees and asylum-seekers.

November 16, 2010 05:42
3 minute read.
Sudanese refugees in Israel.

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.

In July 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.

The unresolved 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.

In 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.

The 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 and persecuted.

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.

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