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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Israel's vacillation on how to process hundreds of Africans streaming into Israel ended abruptly last month when the government implemented its "hot return" procedure: turning asylum-seekers back at the border without allowing them to consult with the appropriate authorities and apply for refugee status. The decision ignited harsh criticism from human rights groups and international media because many of those subsequently turned away were Sudanese, possibly from Darfur.
Not only does Israel have a moral obligation to accept victims of genocide, it is legally bound by the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, as one of its first signatories, to do so. As such, it should follow the international procedure for determining refugee status.
Yet, the fact that Israel is not processing asylum-seekers according to international refugee law encapsulates a greater problem: the lack of a comprehensive, fair immigration policy for all non-Jewish foreigners.
LAST MONTH, the government claimed that the 500 "refugees" it would accept fled Darfur, though reports claim that it enacted few, if any, of the approved steps for determining refugee status, as outlined in the UN Convention. If Israel had examined each case individually (for all asylum-seekers, not only those from Sudan), as it should have according to the UN treaty on refugees, immigration authorities would have allowed asylum-seekers to meet with UN representatives and request asylum, investigated the authenticity of the asylum claim, and allowed them to meet with official human rights workers who would inform them of their rights and grant them refuge if the criteria were met.
However, according to its current policy, Israel will absorb some of the refugees from the genocide in Darfur, but not others - those who came too late. At the same time, we don't know how many of the 500 are refugees from Darfur.
All this before considering that in implementing the "hot return" procedure, Israel breaches the principle of "non-refoulement," not returning asylum-seekers to places where their lives or freedom are in danger. In Egypt they face discrimination, abuse and the possibility of death.
WHEN ISRAEL signed the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees in 1951, it was a young state heavily populated by Holocaust survivors. It understood the importance of harboring refugees.
Yet, since then, Israel has employed a xenophobic policy in dealing with non-Jewish foreigners. While Jews can enter freely under the Law of Return, Interior Ministry clerks have almost unlimited authority in determining which non-Jews can enter the country.
The practices relating to this policy - based on the Interior Ministry's perception of its own role as the palace guard, protecting the Jewish character of the state at any cost - result in blatant human rights violations. The most extreme example is the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law (2003), which sweepingly bars Palestinian spouses of Israeli citizens and residents from obtaining legal status in Israel, thereby tearing many families apart and denying them the right to family life, equality and dignity.
It's no secret that one of Israel's executive strategies is to maintain a Jewish demographic majority. When Israel opened its borders to migrant workers in the 1990s, it did not envision the extent to which the move would threaten the state's Jewish character.
With any population influx, relationships form and people become emotionally and financially attached to their place of residence.
Even though tens of thousands of foreigners work and live here, Israel has not espoused a comprehensive immigration procedure for non-Jews. Ostensibly, the reason is that it wants to ignore the issue altogether.
The official policy is not to grant long-term or permanent residency permits, and especially not citizenship status, to non-Jews, apart from "exceptional cases, for humanitarian reasons, in which there are special considerations" or in the event that Israel has a "special interest in the granting of permanent residency status."
HUMAN RIGHTS organizations such as ACRI have made important strides in recent years in helping foreign spouses and other family members gain residency status, including granting residency status to some children of migrant workers, for many of whom Israel is their only home. Yet, despite this, many fall through the cracks.
Z., for example, is a foreign-born woman who worked legally for an elderly Israeli couple for 17 years. When both husband and wife died, Israel threatened to deport her. She remains in the country on an interim order, awaiting a court hearing.
Because of "exceptional" cases and the reality of global migration, Israel must adopt a comprehensive immigration policy for non-Jews.
That being said, Israel has every right to control who enters its borders. If candidates for residency status are found to endanger Israel and its citizens from a security or criminal standpoint based on relevant evidence from their personal backgrounds, and not national origin or social-economic status, Israel can refuse them. In addition, when considering people with no financial or familial ties to Israel, the state can choose to limit migration. A small country with many internal problems, Israel is perhaps least capable of the Western countries to absorb large amounts of migrants.
At the same time, in evaluating requests for residency, Israel must respect individuals' rights to family - including children's right to live with their parents and families; to equality in gender, nationality, and religion; and to privacy in retaining information irrelevant to residency applications.
Israel must establish a comprehensive policy for all migrant workers, refugees, asylum-seekers, and other non-Jews seeking to obtain residency status based on human rights principles and clear and fair procedures for determining eligibility. Migration is a reality the state can no longer ignore.
Implementing the procedures and policies of the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees with the African asylum-seekers waiting at the Egyptian border is a good starting point.
The writer works in the International Relations Department of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).