National Issues: Asylum seekers or infiltrators?

Sudanese refugees find themselves caught in the same type of linguistic web that stopped the flow of aid to Rwanda in the 1990s.

Until Israel decides how it wants to talk about refugees from Africa, it will never decide what to do about them, a top cabinet minister said this week. "These people, who have crossed the border without our invitation, who are mostly of African origin," was how Prime Minister Ehud Olmert described the 2,200 refugees the UN estimates are currently here. They are being called "asylum seekers" by human rights organizations and "infiltrators" by the army. In between the vocabulary, however, they are finding themselves caught in the same type of linguistic web that stopped the flow of aid to Rwanda in the 1990s. Unlike Rwanda, where it took years for the international community to recognize the deaths of more than 800,000 as a genocide, the word is already being applied to the recent deaths of hundreds of thousands in Darfur. In Israel, however, which has no diplomatic relationship with Sudan, the terminology used to categorize the refugees has played a large role in the government's inaction. About half of the refugees who arrive are from "friendly" African countries, such as Kenya, Eritrea, and Ghana. Since Israel has a diplomatic relationship with these countries, the IDF can process the incoming refugees and transfer them to the UN offices in Tel Aviv, which handles their cases from there. But when the first Sudanese refugees crossed the border with Egypt just over two years ago, there was no procedure for officials to follow. Soldiers initially arrested them and placed them in Ketziot or other Negev prisons. Human rights organizations caught wind of the refugees' imprisonment and filmed dramatic footage that was broadcast on the prime-time news. The public outrage was enough to get those refugees released to half-way programs which kept them isolated in certain areas, but allowed them to earn wages as low-level laborers. That arrangement held for only a few months. As soon as the refugees were freed from prison, the word returned to the refugee camps in Egypt that a better life was possible here. Soon, the stream of refugees mushroomed, from several men arriving each week to dozens of families arriving daily. Some of the men were imprisoned, but the women and children were another problem. Not wanting another human rights story in the press, the IDF would process the refugees, then release them to the police in southern towns such as Beersheba. The police, in turn, would refuse to process them. So the refugees were left stranded on the streets. Without status, none of the government bodies would touch them. So it was the student volunteers and organizations in Beersheba who orchestrated impromptu arrangements for the refugees, finding solutions for each group as it arrived. Again, that solution held for only a few months before the students found their resources strained and housing options running low. The Beersheba Municipality started busing refugees to the Knesset to press the government into making a decision. Finally, during the first week of June, Interior Minister Ronnie Bar-On and Olmert announced that most of refugees would be deported to Egypt. Until the mechanism for their deportation could be worked out, they would be kept in a "camp site," a fenced-off area outside Ketziot. Few are satisfied with the government's solution. The prison system is worried that it will take years to work out an agreement with Egypt for the deportation, leaving the Ketziot facilities strained to provide for them. The government is worried over whom to deport and which selected few should be absorbed. Lastly, the refugees are worried that they will never be given a chance for a normal life. "This is a quick fix for this issue, and like any Band-Aid, it is covering up the problem but not fixing it," said MK Shelly Yacimovich (Labor). Who should solve the problem is yet another debate that many believe should begin with recognizing the new residents as refugees. The Knesset, which was due to meet on the issue this week, cancelled the meeting reportedly due to a private family function of MK Ran Cohen (Meretz). In addition, legislation drafted by a number of organizations, including Amnesty International and the Hot Line for Migrant Workers, has been handed to MKs. Neither the meeting nor the legislation will move forward, however, since the Knesset begins its summer recess next week from which it will only return in late October. Thus the refugees will continue to wait for at least three months, without proper name or status, for their fates to once again be determined by factors that are outside their control or understanding.