A wake-up call

According to figures released by PIBA, about 950 migrants known to have illegally made their way into Israel since beginning of November.

sudan refugees 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
sudan refugees 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Call them asylum-seekers or refugees, infiltrators or migrants, no matter how you choose to define them, Africans, particularly Eritreans, are flooding over our borders at a rapid rate.
According to figures just released by the Population, Immigration and Borders Authority (PIBA), about 950 migrants are known to have illegally made their way into Israel since the beginning of November.
Last weekend alone, some 620 Africans are known to have crossed our border with Egypt. In June, a PIBA representative told The Jerusalem Post there were more than 35,000 African migrants in Israel, 80 percent of them Sudanese or Eritrean. Since then estimates of the number of Africans who have penetrated the border monthly range from around 500 to 2,000.
Work on a five-meter-high fence covered with barbed wire that will close off a 230-kilometer section along our border with Egypt is progressing rapidly. So far 65 km. has been erected. An additional 40 km. will be finished by the end of the year and the entire fence is slated to be completed by September 2012. But the question remains, what is to be done in the meantime? And even after the fence and the accompanying sophisticated radar systems are in place, we might continue to see illegal migration, if not from Egypt then from our lengthy border with Jordan or by sea.
In addition to building a barrier, therefore, it is imperative that our political leaders revamp Israeli policy vis-a-vis refugees and asylum-seekers. As a study by the Metzilah Center titled Managing Global Migration noted, Israel is probably the only Western democracy without legislation governing the treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers.
Israel, a country created in the wake of the Holocaust to be a national homeland for the Jewish people after nearly two millennia of exile among the nations of the world, has a unique moral responsibility toward refugees and asylum-seekers. And our country has so far maintained a good record on refugees and asylumseekers.
Already in 1954, Israel signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which upholds the principle of non-refoulement prohibiting the return of refugees to their country of origin where they might suffer persecution on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality or political activities.
The Jewish state has strictly adhered to the convention.
But, unfortunately, we have yet to put in place the necessary legal infrastructure for implementing the convention's principles. As a result, Israel’s refugee and asylum-seeker policy lacks uniformity and transparency.
Processing of requests is done in an ad hoc way. No arbitration bodies with expertise in immigration law have been created. Migrants often remain in a state of limbo for years, and many begin working illegally in jobs that could be filled by Israelis.
It seems clear that a large percentage of the African migrants making their way into Israel are seeking economic opportunities, not refuge or asylum. One way of discouraging these sorts of migrants would be to eliminate the incentive for coming, by prohibiting their employment. However, banning the employment of African migrants would result in a severe humanitarian crisis.
On the other hand, legislation passed by the Knesset in a first reading in March, which empowers the state to imprison migrants – some of whom might be refugees or asylum-seekers – in a detention facility where basic living conditions could be provided to those prohibited from working appears to violate the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
There are no easy answers. But we have an obligation to rise to the challenge. For nearly 2,000 years the Jewish people were guests, refugees or asylum-seekers in other peoples’ countries. Sometimes they benefited from their hosts’ good treatment, sometimes they were expelled, discriminated against and persecuted.
Now with a sovereign country of its own the Jewish people must not only serve as a moral example of how developed countries should deal with refugees and asylum-seekers, but also make sure that a strong Jewish majority is maintained in a sovereign Jewish state.
It is time for the government to hear the alarm bells, wake up and do something!