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Proposed law would indefinitely jail refugees seeking protection

Israel was created 64 years ago by refugees and for refugees. But despite its young age, the state seems to suffer from memory loss when it comes to dealing with the refugees who seek its protection today.

By Sigal Rozen

Refugees and Israelis in 2010 protest against new detention facility planned in the south (photo: Oren Ziv / Activesills)

The Refugee Convention is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. The young State of Israel was one of its enthusiastic supporters, hurrying to sign and ratify it, thereby legally binding itself to the convention’s principles.

During the 60 years that have passed, Israel has not legislated a refugee law, and all attempts made to that effect by Israeli human rights organizations and concerned Knesset members have failed.

In light of this, it is especially disturbing that the first Israeli law slated to directly affect refugees entering Israel is the “Prevention of Infiltration Law,” which will be up for discussion in a Knesset committee on Monday. Many of the MKs who support the law are likely children and grandchildren of such “infiltrators,” but their memory is short.

The proposed amendments to the Prevention of Infiltration Law passed a first reading in the Israeli parliament on March 30, the final day of the winter session, thus preventing the opportunity for public discussion. Hearings were conducted in the Knesset Interior Committee during the summer recess, despite the absence of the committee members and despite their requests to postpone the hearings.

A similar bill was withdrawn in July 2010 after harsh public criticism. The current law up for amendment is an emergency law, originally passed in 1954 to cope with the infiltration of Arabs who the state claimed sought to sabotage Israeli security. While the previous bill cynically used a security claim to justify draconian measures against desperate people, the present amendment states clearly that its purpose is deterrence: “The expectation is that the detention period will stop the massive infiltration or at least minimize it,” I have heard countless politicians say.

The proposed amendments do not distinguish between terrorists, migrant workers and asylum seekers fleeing for their lives. The law will enable the Israeli authorities to hold in administrative detention for up to three years migrant workers and asylum seekers with their children, just because they entered through Egypt without proper permits. Citizens and residents of “enemy” countries, including survivors of genocide and their children from the Darfur region of Sudan, could be subject to indefinite detention, as the proposed bill stipulates that persons originating from such countries or areas are not to be released under any conditions.

The first paragraph in Article 31 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees states: “The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of Article 1, enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.”

Asylum seekers, upon arrival in Israel from the Sinai desert, usually sit down on Route 10 and wait for the IDF patrol to collect and transfer them to Saharonim prison near the border with Egypt. They want to be registered and recognized.

But among the 149 asylum seekers it recognized as refugees in the last 60 years, Israel has not recognized even one Sudanese or Eritrean national. According to the Ministry of Interior, 97 percent of the “infiltrators” who entered in recent months are citizens of Eritrea and Sudan. The majority escape Eritrea, where gross human rights violations, according to the 2010 Human Rights Report of the US State Department, include “unlawful killings by security forces; torture and beating of prisoners, sometimes resulting in death; abuse and torture of national service evaders; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention, including of national service evaders and their family members.”

One cannot help but assume that Israeli decision-makers avoid reading such reports. Only by sticking to their ignorance can they continue to insist that prolonged detention in a country like Israel, together with the slight hope for ultimate freedom, is worse than their lives of slavery in the dictatorship of Eritrea.

If the law passes, it will fail to fulfill its purpose: human rights organizations will challenge it in the Supreme Court and in the meanwhile, the government of Israel will spend millions of shekels to imprison men, women and children fleeing for their lives.

Despite what the clerks of the Interior Ministry keep insisting, none of those refugees will ask to be returned to Eritrea, when they know what is waiting for them in their country’s underground prisons.

Sigal Rozen is the Public Policy Coordinator of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, which she helped found. She has been active on behalf of asylum seekers for the last 13 years.

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    1. Sara

      “Israel was created 64 years ago by refugees and for refugees.”

      The fact that israel created the world’s largest refugee problem makes the above statement laughable.

      Reply to Comment
    2. ayla

      exactly exactly exactly exactly. thank you. there is so much misinformation out there that seems to seep in from the language of politicians and then the media; most israelis, if they think of african refugees (or non-jewish refugees) at all think they come here “for a better life”. Thank you so much for writing this. We really have to do something; the core integrity of the State of Israel is at stake, and in a way, this issue is easier to galvanize people around than any Israel/Palestinian issue, so through it, we can start to talk as a nation about who we are and what we stand for, and then hope that from there we an apply those values to Palestinians/Palestine as well. Here’s what I wrote on the subject with the narrative occasion of the Detention Center: http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/the-failed-policy-of-no-policy-1.331067

      Reply to Comment
    3. James

      While there are some good points made here, I believe that any discussion about African refugees in Israel (or migrants, infiltrators, whatever one wants to call them) must deal with the issue of what the result of this influx may be.

      If they keep coming to Israel, and considering the situation in Eritrea in Sudan it is certain that they will, then what effect will this have on Israel in 10, 15 years? Is there any negative effect whatsoever to having 200-250k people of a foreign nationality, religion, and culture inside a country of 6 million people?

      This is a serious question and it supercedes the racist slogans of the right and the “we were all refugees once” slogans of the left.

      Reply to Comment
    4. AYLA

      p.s. 972 journalists who think of me as The Optimist and also know how papers sell will not be surprised to know that I had titled this op ed “The African Refugee Opportunity”, and Ha’aretz changed it to “The Failed Policy of No Policy” :). Seems we were better off with no policy… 🙁

      Reply to Comment
    5. Caro

      A tiny country like Israel with its own problems cannot be expected to take in so many Africans. Yes Israel was created by refugees – but to be a homeland for the Jews. There are millions of people suffering in Africa – how many is enough?

      Reply to Comment
    6. AYLA

      @James and @Caro–I doubt anyone is suggesting that Israel absorb every african refugee in need. The bottom line issue is that we have no refugee policy for non-jews (something that I find morally problematic at best), so asylum seekers can’t even get refugee status, or be vetted to see if their reasons for being here make them asylum eligible, or apply for asylum elsewhere, or etc.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Selam Hailezghi

      Israel is afraid what they did to their hosts 64 years ago might be done unto them…

      Reply to Comment