Gov't orders Liberian refugees out by April [pg. 3]

The government has ordered 75 Liberian asylum-seekers to leave Israel by March 31, 2007, the director of the African Refugees Development Center told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. The asylum-seekers join another 60 from Sierra Leone who were ordered to leave the country by the end of February 2006. However, some remain in jail and others are in hiding. Until now, both groups were granted the status of "humanitarian refugees," a status which was devised by the Israeli government and does not include benefits granted to asylum-seekers with refugee status in accordance with the 1951 Geneva Convention, which Israel signed but did not incorporate into local law. On Monday, the African Refugees Development Center (ARDC) is due to hold a demonstration in front of the Prime Minister's Office and, later, at Zion Square in downtown Jerusalem. Yohannes Lemma, the head of the ARDC, told The Jerusalem Post that hundreds of asylum seekers, most of whom are African, have received "humanitarian refugee" status in Israel, but this does not entitle them to health services or any other form of social benefits. It also does not provide them with security, as the plight of the asylum-seekers from Liberia and Sierra Leone prove. Lemma himself arrived in Israel in 1997 on a tourist visa after escaping from Ethiopia, where, he said, he was persecuted because his father had been a military officer in the previous government. As soon as he arrived here, Lemma applied to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel for refugee status. His application was forwarded to Geneva, which approved his request and granted him a document to that effect. According to Lemma, however, the Interior Ministry refused to accept the Geneva document. For the next five years, he lived without any government-recognized status, meaning that he could not work and was not entitled to health or social benefits, though he was saved from expulsion by his Geneva document. In August, 2002, he and a group of about 30 asylum seekers launched a hunger strike in front of the HCR offices in Jerusalem. After 23 days, the government decided to establish the Israeli National Status Granting Body (NSGB) to replace the UN branch of the HCR in Israel. It decided to grant residency status to the refugees. Even after that, it took more than one year before the Interior Ministry accepted the NSGB decision and agreed to grant temporary residency status to the members of the group. Even so, the temporary residency status must be renewed once a year, and is often valid for even shorter periods. The uncertainty of his existence has taken its toll on Lemma. "I can't settle down, I can't live a normal life and I don't know what will happen to me from one day to the next," he said. After the hunger strike, Lemma and his friends established the ARDC. Lemma said the organization includes members from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Congo, Sierra Leone and Darfur, in Sudan. Currently, the case of 72 Ethiopian asylum-seekers whom the government wants to send home is being heard in Tel Aviv District Court, while the High Court of Justice is hearing a petition regarding the Darfur asylum-seekers, most of who are in jail pending deportation. According to Lemma, Monday's demonstration will specifically be on behalf of the refugees from Darfur, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone. The decision to hold the protest was made before the government announcement to expel the Liberians. Lemma charged that the Israeli National Status Granting Body grants refugee status to only 20 applicants per year. "These people…are supposed to build a new life in Israel, but the Ministry of Interior is insensitive and suspicious and does not allow them to acquire permanent status and forces them to live as refugees lacking any stability and security," he said. At press time, the Interior Ministry spokesman had not responded to Lemma's allegations or the news that the Liberian asylum-seekers had been ordered to leave the country.