Lack of legislation keeps refugees in limbo

International Day for the Refugee was marked in Israel by protests on behalf of refugees, seekers of political asylum, and foreign workers.

Sudanese refugees 88 (photo credit: )
Sudanese refugees 88
(photo credit: )
Protests on behalf of Sudanese refugees, Liberian seekers of political asylum, and Thai foreign workers all marked the International Day for the Refugee in Israel this week. But it was a new crisis, still ongoing along Israel's southwestern border, which revealed the extent of the problem facing Israel if it doesn't establish a cohesive policy for dealing with refugees. Some 100 Palestinians, who are fleeing from the new Hamas regime that has established itself in the Gaza Strip, have been caught in the Erez border crossing since last week. While Israel agreed Wednesday to allow anyone in need of urgent medical care to cross into Israel, dozens remain at the border. And while it would appear that the plights of the two groups are unrelated, a meeting of the Knesset Committee on the Interior proved otherwise Wednesday. Israel has no answer for how to deal with either refugee issue because it has never established a refugee policy, determined Committee Chairman MK Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor). "For a state that was founded as an answer to Jewish refugees, it is completely unacceptable that we have no refugee policy," he said. To this day, Israel has not drafted a single piece of legislation establishing a policy for refugees. The lack of any legal protocol has made it impossible for the IDF, Border Police, courts, and various government ministries to determine what to do with the 2,400 refugees who are currently in Israel. "Israel is the only country which calls itself a Western, first world nation, that has no refugee policy," said MK Shelly Yacimovich. "The implications are enormous. These people have no protection, no rights, and no status. They are lost in limbo." Interior Minister Roni Bar-On has been tasked with forming an interministerial committee to deal with the refugee issue. He is expected to make an announcement regarding that committee on Sunday, but even once it is formed, it is expected to take several months to come up with a cohesive policy. Meanwhile, MKs are considering a bill that is being drafted by Amnesty International, the Clinic for Refugee Rights at Tel Aviv University, and the Hot Line for Migrant Workers. However, such legislation could take months, and the Knesset is set to begin its summer recess in late July. By the time a decision is made by either MKs or the interministerial committee, police estimate that another 300-500 refugees will enter Israel from the South, while it unknown how many Palestinians will try to leave the Gaza Strip for the West Bank. "There is simply no solution and no money to deal with this issue until the government makes some sort of decision. We need fast action or at least some type of temporary solution that has the government take some kind of responsibility for the refugees," said Paz-Pines. The MK could not, however, offer any solutions himself. In the meanwhile, police estimate that between 15-20 refugees cross into Israel along the southern border daily. Those refugees come from various African nations, with roughly 20 percent from Sudan. "More and more refugees are coming to our border due to word of mouth from refugees who have already made their way here," said an IDF Southern Command spokesman. "They know that our policy is not to turn them away. They get processed and held for 24 hours, and then are just put out on the street. It's not a bad deal." Once the police and IDF have processed the new refugees, they have no guidelines for what to do with them. Most often, they drop them off at busy street corners in Beersheba and other southern towns, and alert volunteer organizations. Elisheva Milikowsky, who has formed a student volunteer organization to help the refugees, got a text message in the middle of the Knesset committee meeting Wednesday from a border policeman alerting her that they had found 29 Sudanese refugees and would be dropping them off in downtown Beersheba by the afternoon. "This can't be the policy, that they just tell volunteer students like me to take care of them," said Milikowsky. "We have been doing the most we can, but our resources are already stretched to the max."