MKs call on government to show 'special sensitivity' toward refugees

Infiltrations across the Egyptian border have declined dramatically since the beginning of the year, Populations Authority head Ya'akov Ganot told MKs Tuesday during a special session of the Knesset Interior Committee and the State Control Committee to mark International Refugee Day. During the meeting, MKs and State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss discussed Israel's response to the influx of asylum seekers in recent years, a response that Lindenstrauss blasted in a May report that argued that Israel had failed both to protect its borders against infiltrators and to prepare tools to handle the influx, that had been predicted as early as 2005. "The Jewish nation must show special sensitivity above ordinary levels of humanity toward people who are seeking refuge," said State Control Committee Chairman MK Zevulun Orlev (NU-NRP) at the beginning of the joint session. Lindenstrauss backed up Orlev's statement, adding that "we must be at the head of the camp in the our moral, humanitarian and practical approach to the problem of the refugees. As someone who has dealt for years in the field of state oversight, this is one of the most important humanitarian issues that has crossed my table." After Lindenstrauss and members of his office spoke about the problems that his office had found in the treatment of asylum-seekers, Ganot addressed what he described as "recent changes in the field", particularly since Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered authorities to crack down on infiltrations in February of this year. In February, he said, approximately 1,600 people had crossed the Israel-Egyptian border, whereas by May, he said, the number had dropped by 75 percent to approximately 400. Nevertheless, he said, the UN High Commission for Refugees is only able to consider the asylum requests of between 100-120 asylum-seekers per month, which leads to a significant backlog of people awaiting status confirmation. In the meantime, Ganot said, a number of Israeli teams have received training to carry out preliminary assessments. Those assessments, he said, can definitively establish whether the person receives refugee status, but those denied refugee status by the Israeli teams still remain without status pending their UN review. Of the estimated 8,000-8,500 Sudanese and Eritrean refugees in Israel, he said, approximately 2,000 have yet to face any sort of review hearing. Ganot also highlighted the fact that, by July 15, he expected to unveil the Immigration Authority: A government body subordinate to the Interior Ministry that will serve as a clearing-house for government activities regarding both foreign workers and border infiltrators. As part of the conclusions drawn from the meeting, committee members unanimously called on the government to show "special sensitivity" toward refugees and Orlev and Paz-Pines called on the government to consider reducing the number of foreign workers admitted to Israel so that refugees could have a better chance of integrating into the workforce. Also Tuesday, Interior Committee Chairman Ophir Paz-Pines together with MKs Dov Henin (Hadash), Shelly Yacimovich (Labor), and Ran Cohen (Meretz) submitted a law proposal seeking to offer all refugee-status applicants the possibility of receiving care from one of Israel's health providers while awaiting status approval. Currently, people seeking refugee status - other than those who are automatically granted refugee status, such as residents of Darfur - are left without any guarantee of medical care while they are in Israel. "We cannot sit quietly and watch the degradation of basic rights of people, some of whom are refugees from wars, in a land whose citizens suffered persecutions in the past," said Paz-Pines. "We'll try to create realities in the Knesset until the government finally wakes up."