An optimistic proposal, inspired by an interview with the UN refugee agency’s man in Israel.
Last Friday, a couple of days after the south Tel Aviv riot, I interviewed William Tall, representative in Israel of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and came away thinking that there is a way to settle the crisis decently, which I didn’t think there was before. Not that I believe Israel will settle it decently, just that there is a solution that would be fair to the African refugees, to the Israelis in south Tel Aviv, and to the State of Israel.
(Point of information: The current rate of Africans crossing from Sinai into Israel is about 1,500 a month, the same as last year’s. The 2,000-3,000 monthly figure I quoted last week was what Tall told me in late March, at the end of the “spike” in refugees seen from late 2011 into first months of 2012. Since then, the rate of arrivals has gone back to the average monthly rate for 2011.)
A solution to the refugee crisis has to 1) stem the flow of Eritreans, Sudanese and other Africans arriving, who in nearly all cases have no other country to continue on to afterward; 2) treat the refugees decently; and 3) relieve the pressure on south Tel Aviv.
Tall says the border fence Israel is building, and which can reasonably be expected to be finished by the end of the year, should bring down the numbers of new refugees ”dramatically.” He also says that once the camp for 10,000 refugees is built in the Negev, it could legitimately be offered as a refuge – in lieu of work permits – to Africans who enter the country even after the fence is completed. Thus, once the fence and the refugee camp are up and running (construction of the latter, however, is barely underway), Africans would know that even if they got through the fence, they would not be allowed to work here, which should deter the great majority from making the extraordinarily hellish, expensive trip through the Sinai to Israel in the first place.
Tall says that if Israel sets up a border fence with crossings where officials grant fair hearings to people’s appeals for asylum, and operated the refugee camp as an open, properly-run facility, Israel would be within its rights under international refugee treaties (signed by Israel itself) to deny newcomers the right to work.
“We’re not against the fence, and if they operate the camp in a proper way - good luck to the camp,” said Tall. He also said the rate of refugees coming here and their concentration in poor neighborhoods like Hatikva Quarter, where the riot took place, was ”a genuine and reasonable concern of the Israeli government.”
Whether Israel would give fair hearing to asylum requests at the border fence, and whether it would run the camp properly, with refugees being free to come and go, is, of course, another story. But it does seem at least possible to drastically reduce, if not altogether stop, the number of refugees coming to this country - which now stands at upwards of 60,000 and which could grow indefinitely if nothing is done - without turning them away or denying them the means to get food, shelter, clothing and health care.
At the same time, though, the refugees who are here now have to be allowed to work. The legitimate fear that letting them work will encourage more to come should be allayed by the fence and, later, the refugee camp. Meanwhile, they can’t be left destitute for obvious moral as well as practical reasons – it forces them into crime. They can be given jobs that otherwise would go to Chinese, Thais and Eastern European guest workers. This would naturally distribute the refugees around the country, relieving the social pressure on south Tel Aviv.
In my opinion, Israel should rebuild a lot of the mobile home parks it built for the Ethiopian and Russian immigrants in the early 1990s and house tens of thousands of Africans there. I wrote last week that they should be absorbed by cities, towns, kibbutzim and moshavim while acknowledging that Israeli communities would never agree to it. But given the emergency in south Tel Aviv and various other poor neighborhoods, I think the government might agree to pay for mobile home parks.
Regarding the suddenly popular idea to deport the refugees, most of whom are from Eritrea, back to their home countries, Tall said that what he hears about Eritrea “makes North Korea sound like Alice in Wonderland.” He doubts the government would go through with the threats, citing a remark last year by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, no less, that Israel cannot send refugees back to a death trap like Eritrea.
But regarding the South Sudanese, who number up to 3,000 and whom the goverment is determined to deport, Tall said that if Israel first gives a proper hearing to each of them and makes no move against anyone whose safety or life would genuinely be endangered back home, Israel is within its rights to send the others back. He pointed out that about 800 South Sudanese have gone back voluntarily and another 100 or 200 want to.
“If you have somebody from Abyei [a border area between South Sudan and Sudan where there's been terrible fighting], you don’t want to send him back. But if, say, he comes from a family connected to the government with a house in Juba [South Sudan's capital], then that’s a different story,” said Tall.
Still, the South Sudanese are a maximum of 3,000 people; the Eritreans and Sudanese, who are about 50,000 combined, cannot be deported because they would be in grave danger back in their countries. In the case of Sudan, it is also an enemy country that has no relations with Israel, and is certainly not going to oblige it by taking refugees off its hands.
The statements by government ministers that Israel is seeking “third countries” to accept refugees, possibly with inducements of money and/or arms – this has been talked about for years, but no third country has come forward because they all have their own refugees and don’t want Israel’s too. ”There’s nothing new happening in that direction,” said Tall.
I looked at the UN’s figures for the worldwide movement of refugees last year, and it seemed to me that Israel was now taking in a much higher proportion of them, compared to its population, than any Western country. “I hear this a lot from people in the government,” said Tall. “If you look at the cumulative total over time, refugees make up less than one percent of Israel’s population. European countries have taken in much larger proportions than that.”
So we’re not so unique in being “flooded” by Third World refugees. As a tiny, prosperous country in a poor region, and a country that can be reached by land from Africa, we may be uniquely exposed to the world’s greatest pool of refugees – but the fence and refugee camp should narrow that exposure “dramatically.”
Israel is going to have many tens of thousands of Africans inside its borders for a long time, maybe indefinitely, and chances are that a few thousand additional Africans will continue to arrive year after year. If those who’ve arrived before the completion of the fence and camp are allowed to work , and they’re not living on top of one another in a handful of poor Jewish (and one or two Arab) family neighborhoods - if instead they are spread out, with many if not most living in mobile home parks for working refugees, then it seems to me this crisis can be solved in a decent, mutually satisfactory way.
Will it happen? With this government and with dangerous demagogues like Knesset members Miri Regev, Danny Danon and Michael Ben-Ari, I wouldn’t bet on it.
But on the other hand, if Israel can’t deport these refugees – and to deport someone, there has to be a country on the other end to accept him, and so far such a country hasn’t been found – then Israel will have no choice but to learn to live with these people as best it can.
William Tall, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ man in Israel, is convinced there is genuine hope. So who am I, who is anyone, to say there isn’t?
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