World Refugee Day: For a better future

The government should present a sound policy for dealing with the thousands of African refugees and asylum-seekers in the country.

African refugees 311 (photo credit: BEN HARTMAN)
African refugees 311
(photo credit: BEN HARTMAN)
Envision this: After you graduate from high school, you are recruited to the army – four years of service far from family and friends.
Then a university owned by the government engages you for another four years – to study in a faculty that best serves the national interests, such as civil engineering. Another four years are then spent working for the government while you forget what your little sister looks like. You’ve been out of your hometown for 12 years now, and can’t even travel home for a visit.
The 30 years of war your country has endured are followed by never-ending emergency laws, and they are battering your sanity. You are incapable of traveling in your own land and are denied basic human rights. Furthermore, you’re being forced into endless national and military service, and you are forbidden to exercise freedom of speech, press, assembly, association and religion. Your female fellow citizens are facing extreme societal abuse as are gays and lesbians. Workers’ rights are ignored, children must do forced labor; everyone gets a dose of this brutality.
Then you leave! You leave your country and flee, knowing you are endangering your family and friends with retaliation from your own government. You plan the escape from this brutal regime not knowing if you’ll end up being captured, handed over to your oppressors, enslaved, tortured, shot at the border – or find yourself hopeless at Lewinski Park in Tel-Aviv.
This is a small glimpse of what the majority of asylum- seekers from Eritrea are going through. The reality is more brutal than words can describe. No wonder people are making every effort to flee their homes and knock on Israel’s doors. In return, we treat them as infiltrators and trespassers. We build walls and fences to protect ourselves from the African intruders. We ask foreign governments along their path to deal with the waves of African “foreign” workers. But the worst part is that we are unable to look with simple human eyes and reach out to help.
My criticism is directed mainly toward the policies of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government.
Plenty of NGOs, and even government officials, are showing sympathy toward African refugees and making an enormous effort to help. But with an estimated 25,000-plus individuals in Israel, the government must start facing this reality and making a genuine effort to assist refugees and asylum-seekers rather than building walls and additional detention camps.
Access to social rights is crucial to a dignified existence for many who are fleeing a painful reality and asking for a safe haven. It could simply mean access to legal aid and medical services, but it also means true and sincere Refugee Status Determination (RSD), and clear legal residency status. This process is not available to the majority of asylum-seekers in Israel.
Instead, we are offering them group protection against deportation, which is a clear statement of disregard, since this type of document fails to cover basic social and human rights.
African asylum-seekers and refugees in Israel are not afraid they will die; they just don’t know when their lives will start. As we mark World Refugee Day 2011, let’s hope a better future is waiting for them.
The writer is a graduate student at Tel Aviv University and a volunteer at Aid Organization for Refugees - Assaf.