Who are The Refugees in Israel?

The genocide in Darfur, which is in Western Sudan, began in 2003. The Islamic regime of Sudan, together with Bedouin militias, began to systematically destroy the tribes living there.  In total over 300,000 people were murdered, and about 3 million more fled or were expelled from their homes and became refugees.

The human rights situation in Egypt is atrocious, and the refugee rights situation is even worse.  In 2005, after dozens of Sudanese refugees were shot to death when a demonstration for their rights was brutally suppressed and hundreds more were arrested, Sudanese refugees began to flee to Israel via the Sinai Peninsula, some of them from Darfur.

For a long time the State of Israel did not formulate a clear policy on this issue and only a few limited decisions were made – these decisions did not solve the problem and actually made it even worse. The main policy up until today regarding most of the Sudanese and Eritrean “infiltrators” (85% of all the infiltrators in 2011 were Eritrean) is to provide them with a ticket to Tel Aviv and allow them to stay for three months without a work permit – a policy which guarantees their exploitation as cheap labor. Israel does not send refugees back to Sudan or Eritrea because there is still a substantial threat to their lives in these countries.

These asylum seekers (according to the government, they number about 40,000 – 60,000) are forced into poor neighborhoods close to the workplaces that hire them.  The government has an intentional policy of not enforcing the work prohibition, which in effect allows the shameful exploitation of refugees by their employers.  The refugees’ difficult economic situation and lack of legal status has turned them into a new class, with a status even lower than that of the foreign workers in Israel.

It is abundantly clear that we find ourselves facing a complex dilemma. On the one hand, there is a large number of migrant workers, asylum seekers, refugees from genocide, and refugees fleeing for their lives.  On the other hand, we need to deal delicately with the unique character of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and its ability to be a safe shelter and national home for the Jewish People, taking into account Israel’s geographic and demographic situation. We must not ignore either aspect of this tension.

On Tuesday, January 10, 2012, the Knesset passed an amendment to the “Infiltrators Law” with a large majority, allowing administrative detention (without trial) for a period of three years for any “infiltrator.” According to the law, anyone who crosses the border at a point which is not an official border crossing is defined as an infiltrator.  The amendment allows for a life sentence for any infiltrator who breaks the law, including property offenses.  For instance, a child from Darfur who flees to Israel and steels a loaf of bread can be handed a life sentence.  The new law does not address the distress of tens of thousands of refugees living in overcrowded conditions in Israel today.

The amendment to the Infiltrators Law follows last month’s decision by the government to build an enormous prison facility and to expand an existing one, which together will have the capacity to jail thousands of people. These two steps will not solve the problem because even a draconian prison system will not manage to hold even half of the infiltrators who cross into Israel in a year, and who will continue to arrive even with this threat hovering over them.  Furthermore, this constitutes a major step towards the destruction of Israeli democracy and a historical precedent in Israeli law.  The policy’s hidden agenda is to mark the black “other” as a criminal, to distance him from Israeli society, and to incite the Israeli public against him. All this is happening at a time of across-the-board budget cuts, supposedly in order to solve the problem, but it will mostly hurt the disadvantaged sections of Israeli society.

As Jews, against whom the most heinous plot to systematically destroy a people was ever attempted, and as human beings concerned about the moral condition of our world, it is imperative that we do everything in our power to ensure the well-being of the refugees, especially those who have come to our country.

Our nation has already been scorched by the fire of genocide and the apathy of bystanders.  We cannot accept such decisions today.  We cannot stand on the sidelines while refugees are knocking at our door.  We must answer their call.  The State of Israel must to adopt a number of integrated measures regarding the refugee problem detailed in our document: “A Matter of Life and Death:”

  1. Close the Israel-Egypt border and allow crossing only at official border-crossing stations.
  2. Establish an absorption and selection system for asylum-seekers in order to differentiate between refugees fleeing for their lives and migrant workers.  Those not fleeing for their lives will be returned to their place of origin.
  3. Determine an annual quota for refugee absorption and rehabilitation, and determine an official refugee status.
  4. Establish a medical and psychological treatment system for the refugees recognized by Israel, regulate labor laws, provide professional training based on the assumption that refugees can be returned to their countries when the danger has passed, and creating special arrangements for minors unaccompanied by their parents.

Only a combined effort of all these proposed measures will morally and practically address the issue of asylum seekers and refugees in Israel, and will allow us to stand up to the test that this issue poses to the character of Israeli society and the State of Israel.

Click here To read the Recommended policy for the State of Israel relating to refugees and asylum-seekers

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