Security forces don't know how to deal with the growing number in the South.
By JERUSALEM POST STAFF
The pace of refugees seeking asylum in Israel has doubled in the past six months, Israeli government officials revealed ahead of the International Day for Refugees Wednesday.
Israeli organizations that have been providing aid and support to refugees plan to mark the day by pressing the government to establish a policy to deal with the 2,400 refugees that Amnesty International estimates are currently living in Israel.
"Israel has no primary legislation, no legislation whatsoever on refugee rights," said Ilan Lonai, a campaign coordinator for Amnesty International. "We are working for legislation that most first world countries have already had for years." Approximately 20 people were caught by IDF and Border Police units overnight trying to cross the border between Israel and Egypt. In the early morning hours, MDA teams were also called to the border area when a Sudanese refugee went into labor after making her way across the barren desert border.
Every day, 15 to 20 refugees cross the southern border and enter Israel, police officials said Tuesday during a meeting of the Knesset's Committee on Foreign Workers. After border police pick up the refugees from wherever they cross into Israel, they hold them for 24 hours, and then release them on the doorstep of a local police station. Local police, however, have no legal basis for taking in the refugees, and often turn them away or drop them off on a busy downtown corner. From there, it has become the job of local non-profits and kindly students to look after the refugees.
"We find the refugees wandering the streets of Beersheba. They are just dropped off there, left by the police or the army or something, in rags and sometimes sick," said Elisheva Milikowsky, a student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who began a student organization to aid refugees. "We take them in, try to find somewhere for them to spend the night, and then get them in touch with shelters. We need help, though. We pay for the medicine ourselves, for the food, for whatever they need. We are already poor students, and this comes out of our own pockets."
Israel has been receiving refugees from African countries, including Ghana, Eritrea, and the Ivory Coast area, for more than a decade. While some remain in Israel and receive work permits, others are returned to their countries of origin. In recent years, however, a growing number of refugees fleeing persecution in Sudan have traveled through Egypt to Israel's southern border. Since Israel has no diplomatic ties with Sudan, and the refugees would likely be killed if returned, the Israeli government has remained undecided about how to treat the refugees, and the refugees have been left in limbo. Amnesty International estimates that there are currently 850 Sudanese refugees in Israel.
"In the beginning it was just a few hundred, and no policy was formed. The problem has mushroomed, however. The refugees are telling people they know back home that they can find asylum in Israel, and the whole thing is getting worse because the Israeli government has no policy," said Eytan Schwartz, an activist who has been working with Sudanese refugees for more than a year.
The cabinet is slated to discuss the refugee issue on Sunday, while Interior Minister Roni Bar-On (Kadima) is expected to announce his recommendations in the coming week. Ministry officials said that Bar-On would most likely recommend that the government form a interministerial committee tasked with forming a cohesive policy on the refugees. Such a committee could take weeks to form, however, and months more to draft a policy.
In the meantime, several Knesset Members have decided to draft their own legislation to guarantee certain basic rights to refugees.
MKs Ran Cohen (Meretz), Shelly Yacimovich (Labor), Gilad Erdan (Likud), and Avishay Braverman (Labor), will present a bill next week that would provide the refugees with education, health care, and basic housing.
"There have been a number of cases of refugees being treated in ways that are not just illegal, but immoral," said Cohen. "A number of kids, that is, anyone under the age of 18, were kept in jail for nearly one year. We have heard other cases of children being denied education. All of this must stop." The bill that the MKs are currently considering is being drafted by Amnesty International, the Clinic for Refugee Rights at Tel Aviv University and the Hotline for Migrant Workers.
Rebecca Anna Stoil contributed to this report
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