Authorities to decide on refugee policy

Three-week deadline set for all relevant authorities to establish cohesive policy for refugees.

Sudanese refugees 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Sudanese refugees 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A three-week deadline has been set for all relevant national authorities to establish a cohesive policy for the thousands of African refugees that have streamed into the country, senior officials told the Knesset's Committee on Foreign Workers Tuesday. In a meeting earlier this week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert instructed the Internal Security Ministry, Defense Ministry, and the Interior Ministry to decide on a strategy for the more than 7,000 refugees who are currently in Israel, and the tens of the thousands of refugees currently in Egypt, who are expected to try to cross into Israel in the coming years. "In three weeks' time, the relevant bodies will convene again and determine a final course of action with the prime minister," said Ya'acov Ganot, who heads the Interior Ministry's Population Administration, and who will oversee the rest of the authority's involvement with the African refugees. "Most of the refugees will be deported and sent elsewhere." Olmert has been increasingly criticized over the lack of a cohesive refugee policy regarding the thousands of refugees who have crossed into Israel over the past three years. That criticism has only grown after the stream of refugees entering Israel through its porous southern border with Egypt mushroomed in recent months. "In February of last year, 97 refugees arrived in Israel. In February of this year, more than 1,000 refugees infiltrated Israel. These numbers speak for themselves. The refugees must be stopped, or Israel will be overrun," said Ganot. Stopping the refugees, however, is controversial, according to several human rights organizations that gathered at Knesset committee meeting. "The very international laws that Israel advanced in 1951, the laws that dictate how refugees should be regarded by the international community, those laws compel Israel to take in these refugees," said Physicians for Human Rights spokesman Ran Cohen. "Those laws were created when we ourselves were refugees, lest you forget." Even if Israel were to build a fence along its border with Egypt, effectively controlling the flow of people between the two countries, it would still need to address applications from asylum seekers, said Ilan Lonai, a spokesman from Amnesty International. Israeli authorities have enlisted a number of organizations, including the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, in trying to determine a set of policies regarding asylum seekers. A number of criteria, including a refugee's country of origin, the date of their arrival in Israel, and the number of asylum seekers, are being used in a complex status system that is currently being established. According to data presented by Ganot, approximately 3,000 of the 7,000 refugees have been given some type of official status in Israel. That figure includes 600 refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan who have been given official refugee status; 1,980 Eritreans, who arrived in Israel prior to December 25, 2007 who received one-year work permits but no refugee status; and approximately 800 people from the Ivory Coast and Liberia who have been given temporary work permits to be reevaluated semi-annually based on the political situation in their home country. "One group of people arrives at a certain date and they can remain. Another group arrives at a different date and they are deported. How can you say that one group suffers less than the rest? That one group should stay and the other sent away to possibly dangerous conditions?" said Sigal Rosen, a spokeswoman for the Hotline for Migrant Workers. Olmert announced plans to begin deporting the refugees back to Egypt nearly one year ago. One group of 35 refugees was deported to Egypt in the fall. As revealed in The Jerusalem Post, five of those refugees were deported by Egyptian authorities to Sudan, and incarcerated for visiting Israel, which the Sudanese government labels an "enemy country." The deportation and imprisonment of those five refugees has been used by human rights groups seeking to legally block the Israeli government from proceeding with their plan to deport refugees. "We are currently in talks with various parties to determine a secure solution for the refugees," said Ganot. "We must consider our own country and the needs of our current populations." MK Ran Cohen, chairman of the Committee for Foreign Workers, said that the committee planned to investigate the manner in which the Israeli government has interviewed the African refugees.