At Home and Abroad: Deadly deadline

On Wednesday, the Knesset will determine the fate of 86 Liberian refugees slated for return.

Sudanese refugees 88 (photo credit: )
Sudanese refugees 88
(photo credit: )
The plight of Liberian refugees slated for expulsion by the end of the month has generated a new effort, led by lawmakers including Likud MK Gilad Erdan, to keep them here until their home country is ready for their return. They are here following a UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) declaration issued 17 years ago that Liberia was an unsafe country during the tumultuous 14 years of civil war beginning in 1989. But that declaration was rescinded last year, following the free election of a new government. At the time, the UN declared that "the uncertain situation that characterized the immediate aftermath of the armed conflict's end and the temporary and extraordinary conditions caused by the long war have improved," and announced a new phase of "reconstruction and rehabilitation." Israel has abided with a UN request to delay the refugees' return until March 31, but now the authorities plan to return the Liberians to their country. In October, Interior Minister Roni Bar-On, who has the power to decide on their fate, sent them letters saying their Temporary Protection Status will expire at the end of March. But while Liberia has stabilized politically - following the November 2005 election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as president - it has not stabilized socially. Tensions among the tribes are dangerously high, following years of brutal fighting that left an estimated 200,000 dead and 800,000 displaced. The elected government has been unable to completely calm the situation, and the return of the refugees could destabilize rehabilitation efforts, the government has said. The theft, rape and murder carried by certain tribes or groups in certain regions, often with the government's overt or discreet support, are still fresh in the memory of many Liberians, whether they remained in the country or not, and there is a very real fear of brutal retribution if refugees return. UN officials have warned of an ethnic "time bomb" over land-ownership disputes that would ensue with such a return. Furthermore, according to a progress report submitted to the UN Security Council in December, the government has yet to establish a viable security infrastructure that can bring order to the country, and the state's new army is not expected to be operational in 2008. The report noted that the disarmament and rehabilitation of many ex-combatants from the civil war years is still incomplete. Meanwhile, 80 percent of Liberians are living on less than $1 a day, and uncontained epidemics are reported in the countryside. For these reasons, President Johnson-Sirleaf has asked countries around the world to wait before sending Liberians back. According to the UN, a return of even half of Liberia's recent emigrants "would trigger new resettlement, rehabilitation, and security constraints." In addition, an increase in the urban populations would bring a corresponding rise in disease and unemployment, while the nation's services are already unable to cope with current needs. Of the Liberians in the US, Johnson-Sirleaf said, "The government wouldn't know what to do with 20,000 returnees... If we had 20,000 Liberians returning tomorrow, we wouldn't know how to cope, quite frankly." The US has already extended the stay of Liberians there by six months - to October 1 - and legislators are working on a bill, said to be supported by President George W. Bush, to further extend their stay. Australia and Canada have offered "resettlement" in their countries to those who cannot return to Liberia out of fear for their lives. The European Union has also answered Johnson-Sirleaf's call. IT IS this difficult situation that prompted Liberia's foreign minister of Liberia to send a letter to the Foreign Ministry on February 22 requesting an extension of the Temporary Protection Status for the Liberians living here. At the same time, the local Liberian community has petitioned the government for an extension. Many of them come from the eastern region of Nimba, an area that saw some of the worst fighting and atrocities during the war. Many of the refugees who returned during the brief break in the fighting in 1997 - some of them from Israel - were murdered by locals protecting their newly-gained property or fearful of reprisals for violence committed during the war. For Liberians living here, the possibility that Israel might not abide by these requests is terrifying. "Most of the Liberians in Israel are from the Mandingo tribe," the group's lawyer, Ari Syrquin, told The Jerusalem Post. "And they know exactly who killed their siblings or stole their property. They were often neighbors from different tribes. These people are waiting for them, and might kill them if they return." "Most countries have [allowed the refugees to remain] without legislation," he added. But when Bar-On didn't respond to a January 23 letter from Syrquin appealing their case - or to any one of subsequent weekly appeals - Syrquin turned to the Knesset for help. Syrquin says all he wants is for Bar-On "to carry out his authority to extend their stay under the Law of Entry. But he ignored my appeals, and the state ignored the appeals of the [Liberian] Foreign Ministry. I'm not asking for citizenship or permanent residency for the refugees - just for an extension of one year while the situation in Liberia improves." NOW, HOWEVER, an appeal to the Knesset may have changed their fate. The Interior Committee will meet Wednesday to discuss the issue of the 86 Liberians residing in the country. Among those invited are senior Interior Ministry officials, Erdan said. The Liberians are unlike other groups seeking asylum here - whether Palestinian, Sudanese or Congolese, he maintains. "They're only a few dozen people. They aren't a burden on the country, since they all work. And they're not even eligible for civil rights, only human rights. So Israel doesn't pay for their health insurance." In addition, Syrquin points out, some have been in the country for 17 years, 16 children of the group were born here, and unlike many other asylum seekers, they entered legally, with government agreement following the special UNHCR request. "If someone is here for more than 10 years, I think he has some right to have his situation examined carefully before he is sent away," Syrquin said. "There is no need to rush to kick them out." According to a letter sent by Syrquin to Bar-On, Israel may be the only country that has not yet extended the stay of the Liberians in its midst.