Liberal definitions

As Liberia maintains a fragile peace, former refugees living here face deportation to a destroyed home.

Sudanese refugees 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Sudanese refugees 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
From the clean but spare one-room apartment he shares with four other people, Ayouba Kenneh watched his native country take tenuous strides toward democracy. Through his Internet hook-up, he perused the media for reports on the presidential race that, finally, saw Liberia's first female leader elected late last year and confirmed the end of a civil war begun in 1989. "Liberia at this stage needs somebody who has great experience, great talent and is well-respected in the world," says the 39-year-old Kenneh, whose south Tel Aviv home is some 5,500 kilometers from his West African birthplace. "Because of this, I was so happy when she was elected president. I thought she was going to do something good for the country." But his celebration was short-lived. The same event that brought a ray of hope to Kenneh's countrymen last November brought clouds of foreboding for him and the rest of the tight-knit Liberian community granted refuge in Israel. Without the United Nations' special designation concerning Liberia's debilitating civil war, the Jewish state was no longer obligated to host its citizens. After years spent building their lives in Israel, they found out this month that they face deportation as of March 31, 2007. Unlike Liberian refugees in many European countries, they don't have any grounds on which to make the case that they should be able to stay, short of the threat of individual persecution. And that means Kenneh is watching the future with trepidation as well as anticipation. "Firstly, the country [Liberia] should be in a good situation. We love it. We're happy to hear such news," he says. "But it's not good for some of us." In Liberia, things had been more than not good for Kenneh. The last night he spent in his hometown was the one on which his father, oldest brother and aunt were murdered. The general chaos in which society broke down along tribal and religious lines of animosity allowed for disgruntled neighbors to exact vengeance. That's why, according to Kenneh, a regular customer at his father's corner store who couldn't pay his debts made sure he'd never have to. During the attack, which took place at 3 a.m. by his account, Kenneh hid by the compost pile. Its stench and unsavory character ensured that no one would look for him there. It was unpleasant, he recalls, but "it was to survive." Worried that the assailant would come after him next, Kenneh fled the city and soon after the country. He made his way on foot with other refugees across the border. It took a week of little food and lots of heartache - one of his companions lost her baby along the way - but his group of nine finally got to the Ivory Coast. From there he made his way to Egypt and, on October 16, 1997, arrived in Israel. Kenneh came to Israel because it was the only place he could afford to reach from Egypt, and a Liberian diplomat offered to help him get a tourist visa to Israel. Once he was in, he could stay on and work illegally - those were the days before the Immigration Police unit had been established and foreign workers were tacitly tolerated. In the 1990s, according to Galia Sabar, chairwoman of African Studies at Tel Aviv University, "It was very, very easy to come here and the hourly wages were very high." Especially as Europe was starting to get tough with African migrants, Israel became an attractive destination for foreign workers. But Kenneh desired to be more than an illegal worker; he wished to be recognized as a refugee and given the protection and rights that entailed. "I wanted to apply for refugee status when I got here, but the UN was only concerned about the Middle East, not Africa," Kenneh recalls. "[I understood that] Africa is not part of the Middle East, and I didn't even check again." At that time he was working in a hotel in Eilat, and he was still there in 2001 when a fellow Liberian employee met a member of the UN staff who happened to be visiting. The friend learned that they were both eligible for refugee designation, and a few months later Kenneh received his Temporary Protected Status (TPS). He got a stay of deportation and a work permit, moved to Tel Aviv to become a house cleaner and met Delma, a Filipina whom he soon married. He also has since been elected the president of the Liberian community. "When I first got the protection, I felt somehow safe, that I'm in safe hands," he relates. "I felt I wouldn't be deported back home, where they killed my family and life wouldn't be safe." IN 2002, the United Nations decided that Liberia would join an elite list of nations - including Sierra Leone, Congo and the Ivory Coast - so racked by turmoil and devastation that anyone who escaped the chaos should be granted asylum for the duration of their brutal civil wars. Usually, only those who can prove a fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion have the right to protection under the Refugee Convention, and that protection is granted on an individual basis. Kenneh was among some 70 Liberians already in Israel to be given this "Temporary Protected Status." Though some have since left, the remaining group has been joined by 10 to 20 others, according to Michael Bavly, the representative in Israel of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. All together, there are roughly 500 temporary refugees in Israel, though the Sierra Leonese lost their protection as of February and some have already been deported. Bavly notes that the text of the Refugee Convention, to which Israel is a signatory, doesn't explicitly detail this provision for temporary status, so the UN frames its guidelines in the form of a request. "It's something that's granted by the country. It's not granted by the UN," Bavly says. Israel "is not obligated in any other sense than doing what the family of nations requests," he explains, though he adds that he isn't aware of a country that has refused the UN's appeal. When the UN retracts that request when the situation improves, as it did this month for Liberians, the host country is not obligated to keep the refugees, he says. As Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Hadad puts it, "They have been here because someone decided that their country is too dangerous, and the minute the UN decides their country is not dangerous anymore, they have to leave." Bavly, however, sees a platinum lining in the situation. "Thank God the war is over, there have been democratic elections and a wonderful woman has been elected," he says. "Thank God that wars that start also come to an end." THOUGH ADVOCATES for the refugees also welcome the change of fortunes in Liberia, they are less keen to see a change of fortune for the Liberians in Israel. Yet even they admit the legal requirement for Israel to keep the Liberians is weak. "It's not enshrined in the convention," acknowledges Anat Ben-Dor, a lawyer at the Tel Aviv University Refugee Rights Clinic, of the temporary status. "I think Israel would say it's made a humanitarian gesture which is not necessary under international law and is able to stop it at any time." But, she maintains, "Some sensitivity has to be given to the reality that has evolved during the preceding [period]. These are people who have stayed here for quite a long time and built their lives here. Going back is not such a trivial matter." Indeed, Ben-Dor and many of her peers make the case for allowing Liberians a chance at long-term status on humanitarian grounds. "I wish we had bigger hearts in this country and compassion to let them stay here," laments Shevy Korzen, executive director of the Hotline for Migrant Workers. "How do you deal with a person who has been living in Israel, working in the country, learning the language for five, 10, 15 years? Are they going to be a foreigner forever? Are you going to send them back forever?" "I've been here for almost eight years, and I've adopted the cultural system," Kenneh says. "I see no harm [to anyone] in staying." While he admits he doesn't consider himself Israeli or speak Hebrew too well - most of his employers prefer to speak to him in English, which makes it hard to practice Hebrew - he speaks warmly of Israelis and the country. A Muslim, Kenneh praises Israel for its openness and freedom of worship. "The only problem I have with the [Jewish] religion is basari and halavi," he half-jokes, using the Hebrew words for meat and milk products, which can't be eaten together under Jewish law. "They tell me, 'Don't mix!' But everything goes to the same stomach." According to Sabar, Africans in Israel have traditionally "felt very good here in the sense that they were not persecuted as blacks or feeling a lot of prejudice from the people." She describes their experience of searing racism in East Asian and Eastern European countries, while in Israel they laud their employers for trusting them. Their catchphrase, she says, is: "You Israelis give us the keys to your home." At the same time, Sabar continues, "You can't say that they're integrated into Israeli society - they're not. They learned the Israeli society. They work. They have their own parallel life in Israel. They're very well organized socially, culturally and religiously with their own community." BUT THAT doesn't mean returning to their African nations would be so simple. They experience "frustration" at having made it out of their war-torn country only to return to nothing. "They were out of the system, they don't know anybody there. Their networks were broken," Sabar explains. In Israel, "They were exposed to a modern health care system and education system." Back in Liberia, "[While] there's no war, it's still very hard to speak about a functioning country," Sabar adds. Repatriated Liberians "would face the same problems that all the Liberians face - that there's no central power there. There's a warlord conflict there, open violence in the street." Kenneh says he is scared more by those he knows personally - particularly the man that killed his family members - than the faceless warlords. "The person that did the killing, I know him, so that's my greatest fear," he says. "If I do go back, one way or another either I kill him or he kills me, because I know that he killed my father." At the same time, he acknowledges that he has more material reasons for preferring to stay in Israel. "The economic opportunity right now is better in Israel," he says, "because the war has devastated everything. Everything was uprooted." According to Sabar, "Some of the refugees in Israel - but a very few of them - are actually facing threats upon their return. Others would rather stay in Israel because commercially, and every other way, they are much better off here. They may exaggerate the threats and violence they expect when they return home." But Korzen says she understands the feelings of insecurity. "If anything was left there, surely someone else is already living there, and these are countries that can't provide for people who are coming back. They can't even provide for people already there," she declares. "These are countries that have totally collapsed because of the wars that have been going on for years and years. "If you can imagine refugees who have run away, sometimes from torture, now there's a ceasefire and it seems like there's peace, but I can understand why they don't feel safe going back and maybe facing the people who harmed them," Korzen continues. "People need permanence in their life. A refugee or someone escaping a civil war shouldn't be bounced around the world," argues Michael Kagan, who works with Ben-Dor at the TAU Refugee Rights Clinic. "When somebody's been a refugee and after 10 years, they're told, 'The war's over, now leave‚' it's incredibly disruptive. It's the opposite of what someone fleeing violence needs." And that's one of the main reasons why certain Western countries provide avenues for a more permanent status. PLACES SUCH as Belgium, Spain and Finland allow those who have fled civil war to apply for long-term status - even citizenship - after having been in the country for several years. It also makes financial sense, Kagan asserts. "An immigrant of any kind, a refugee or not, usually imposes the heaviest burden on the society in the first few years when they're trying to find their way." After that point, there's less of an incentive to remove them from the country. In fact, he maintains, the people who think they have a long-term future in the country are more likely to save, invest and contribute something productive. Even those European countries that haven't individually legislated provisions for permanently absorbing survivors of civil war or those granted Temporary Protected Status are under an EU directive that "when temporary protection ends, the Member States will in specific cases consider any compelling reasons which make return impossible." In addition, anyone under TPS with "special needs such as medical or psychological treatment, if their return would entail interrupting such treatment" can stay. Israel doesn't grant health benefits under its provisions for TPS individuals. But Israel will be interviewing all the Liberians losing their status, according to Bavly, and any that fall under the Refugee Convention definitions of those facing individual persecution will be able to stay here. He points to some 200,000 Liberians from around the world - Europe included - who have gone back home following the end of the civil war. "This is presented as horrible Israel sending them back to hell and Israel misbehaving. These figures are giving you the dimension of the situation," he says. But when it comes to refugees as defined by the Refugee Covenant, virtually all EU countries - unlike Israel - do offer some access to citizenship. "Israel is very unique in that sense, because we have no avenues for giving citizenship to [refugees who are] non-Jews, and everything there is is the exception not the rule," Sabar says. According to the Interior Ministry, recognized refugees - excluding those with TPS - get a work permit and in some cases permanent residency, but never citizenship. "Israel has defined itself from the very beginning as a state of the Jewish people," Sabar explains. "These are our boundaries of nationality and citizenship." Refugees and foreign workers who come to Israel often don't understand that the Western country they happen to have arrived in doesn't operate by the same rules as many others. "They say, 'We should have gone to England and France. Nobody would have deported us after 15 years,'" Sabar relates. Indeed, Kenneh points to his siblings who have made it to Italy, America and Australia. "They resettled. They have never been told to go," he says. Though it's possible his kin could have to eventually return, for now he's asking, "Why do I have this problem?" Sabar's answer is simple. "Refugees, for us, is only Jews. We are not adopting a general humanistic approach to people as people," she says. "It's a state or a place of refuge, a homeland, for Jewish people. Period." And that, defenders of the current policy maintain, is the way it should be. "The decision to deport these people is a decision to preserve the Jewish character of the state," says Roei Lachmanovitch, media adviser to Shas party head Eli Yishai. Shas was the only party in the coalition to oppose the recent cabinet decision loosening the criteria for letting children of foreign workers stay in Israel. "We are humane," Lachmanovitch stressed. "If Israel is a shelter, because they face distress in other places, we're in favor of [asylum]." But, he continued, "The minute that professionals decide that the danger in other places has passed, it's correct and proper to return them to their countries. Why should we second-guess the professionals?" ON THE OTHER hand, Korzen of the Hotline asserts that Jewish values are precisely the reason Israel should allow the Liberians to stay. "I think that showing compassion and [protecting] the rights and needs of those who have come to us and asked us for support is the last thing that would threaten us as a Jewish state. I think the thing that threatens us is forgetting our morals," she contends. "I can't think of anything worse." She argues that the state's experience with World War II refugees should be a guiding example: "I know in Israel you're not supposed to make comparisons. But when I hear these stories from my grandmother, who survived the Holocaust and could have stayed in Europe and rebuilt her life, [but] felt she couldn't do it, she couldn't go back to the place where she suffered so much trauma, which is the main reason she came to Israel - it's the easiest way to understand [the Liberians]." She adds that when it came to Holocaust survivors, "Nobody thought of telling them they had to go back." Amnon Rubinstein, a legal scholar and a member of the government's committee to formulate an immigration policy, uses that backdrop as his reference point. "We should follow Western usage and apply it in Israel," Rubinstein says of creating more options for settled status for refugees. "We should lead in this respect, because we are a country based on refugees from genocide." But even most immigrant activists don't take a maximalist stance. Korzen, for one, admits that pressing the government to allow all the Liberians to stay would be a mistake. "I can't say categorically that we have to give citizenship to everyone who gets protected here," she says, "because I know that would mean that Israel wouldn't give this kind of protection in the future." Ben-Dor says the TPS has some advantages: "It's a way you can give a large population of people status in a relatively short amount of time." As opposed to formal asylum seekers, who must go through a lengthy interview and documentation process, anyone with a Liberian passport was automatically allowed to stay when TPS began. What refugee advocates want is a policy that allows for personal examination of how fit individual Liberians are to leave after TPS is revoked. "Some people are better equipped to live their lives there," says Korzen of those facing deportation. The considerations, Sabar said, should include whether they've saved up money while in Israel, whether they have communities to return to and what their relationship is with their families. But Bavly says, "The convention has very clear definitions" for persecuted individuals eligible for status. "The fact that you come from a country that's less good than another country is not a reason." If they must go, they must be prepared, the advocates say. And the UN agrees. Bavly's office, together with the State of Israel and the American Joint Distribution Committee, are funding classes for all the Liberians in computers and small business administration, as well as reading and writing for those who lack even basic skills. The point of allowing the Liberians to stay until March of 2007, Bavly explains, is to "give them enough time to reorganize their lives and get themselves ready to leave." Ben-Dor concedes that giving them enough time to prepare for leaving is the proper procedure, But Kagan calls the move "very, very little, very, very late." He points out that the Liberians have been here for years and contends that they should have received training well before now "if the country is serious about sending people back." Kenneh, for his part, generally welcomes classes. He's already taken several at the Mesila center for foreign workers run by the Tel Aviv municipality. Currently, he's enrolled in a course on NGO organization, which will help him with the Liberian association he heads. And he's already mastered computers; he even teaches other members of the community how to use them on two desktop machines he has crammed into his living room. Above the loveseat, a grease board hangs awaiting the next lesson. But the classes most recently announced by the UN leave a somewhat Pavlovian bad taste in his mouth. Kenneh recounts how he and the rest of the community gathered at the beginning of the month to hear about new courses being prepared for them. At the end of the presentation, they were told that these courses were to help them with their return to Liberia, which would be in 10 months. "It came on as a surprise," he says, indicating that his community expected to be able to stay about three years in order for the country to improve and to be sufficiently educated. But even three years would be shorter than Kenneh would like. "If they give me the chance, I would love to stay."