Currently in Israel, there are over fifty thousand people from Eritrea and Sudan who illegally entered the country. This contested issue speaks to the aphorism, “two Jews, three opinions.” For if you would walk around in Israel, as I did, you will discover that there are truly a plethora of opinions on the African migrant debate. Whether it be in the Knesset (Israeli parliament), supermarket, or mall, you’ll find many people with strong views on the issue who disagree with each other. I heard people propose different solutions which ranged from expelling every “infiltrator” from the land, to granting all of them Israeli citizenship. As an ardent Zionist, criticizing the Jewish State goes against the grain of my beliefs, but it is because I care about this country so much that I must speak out against it. For the way Israel is handling the Eritrean and Sudanese refugee crisis is wrong and the only way to atone for this injustice is to grant most of these refugees asylum.
The first part of this conflict in dispute is why these people came into Israel. No one would say that the situations in their home countries aren’t horrendous, but some Israel politicians say that most of the illegal immigrants are not considered refugees according to international law. According to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, refugees are people who “who [have] been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence.” So let’s see if these people fit the United Nation’s definition on refugees.
Amnesty International has called Eritrea one of the world’s “most repressive states,” and United Nations Special Rapporteur, Sheila B. Keetharuth, reported that this country has a “blanket disrespect of fundamental human rights.” Eritrea has jailed more than ten thousand people without probable cause of crime or a fair trial, and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in 2012 named Eritrea “one of the world’s most censored countries.”
Now let’s talk about Sudan. Although the majority of the immigrants who came to Israel are Eritrean there were a significant number who are Sudanese. In 2012, according to Human Rights Watch, “Sudan’s indiscriminate bombardment and obstruction of humanitarian assistance forced more than 170,000 to flee to refugee camps…” Furthermore, Sudan violently quells any form of anti-governmental protest. Student-led protests by Sudanese university students led to twelve being killed, and others being interrogated, tortured and jailed. If you were Sudanese, wouldn’t you flee?
Despite all of this, Netanyahu and many others in the Israeli government still contend that the majority of people entering Israel are doing so illegally and are not refugees fleeing repression rather, they are people trying to enter a country where they can earn in a month what takes them two years to earn in their home country. On his Facebook, Prime Minister Netanyahu wrote, “We completely halted the infiltration into Israel and now we are determined to remove the illegal infiltrators that entered Israel. Last year we increased six-fold the number of infiltrators that left, to more than 2,600, and the goal this year is to increase this figure even more.”
Israeli officials who are against these refugees also argue that according to international law, if you cross more than one border, you lose your refugee status. However, because Egypt refused to accept the refugees, they were left with no option other than to retreat to Israel, the only country in the region which at worst, would only do what they’re currently doing – arresting every refugee on arrival.
Another important aspect of this issue is the 1951 Convention. The 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees, which Israel is a party to and helped draft, calls for all refugees to be entitled to basic rights which include the right not to be expelled, the right to work, and the right not to be punished for illegal entry. Unfortunately, according to my research, Israel has done two out of the three; from “voluntary” expulsions to arresting the refugees the moment they entered the country.
All of this said, there is one significant statistic to keep in mind. According to United Nations figures, eighty percent of the illegal immigrants are male. This occurrence is what leads many in Israel to believe that this is an economic migration and not people fleeing a war-torn area. It is my contention though, that although many of these people might be economic migrants, the way they are being treated is unacceptable regardless. Furthermore, Israel has granted refugee status to a very small percentage, and given what we know about Eritrea and Sudan, the true refugee percentage must be much higher.
When I first read about the refugees in Israel I was surprised about some things but less so about others. I wasn’t surprised that so many people risked their lives to come to Israel. Israel has a great history with human rights and immigrants. In recent years Israel has absorbed more illegal immigrants than any other country in the EU in absolute numbers. And being the only true democracy in the region, these refugees knew that Israel was the safest place they could attempt to run to, where they wouldn’t be shot on spot or tortured.
Because of all of this, I was shocked to hear how Israel was treating these people, simply because they consider them “economic migrants.” I understand that taking in an amount of people almost equivalent to one percent of its population is a lot for a country smaller than the size of New Jersey. However, these people could have been treated more humanely and more of them should have been permitted to stay.
The African refugee issue demonstrates Israeli democracy to the highest degree. For even these immigrants, who Israel considers illegal, have the right to protest for their rights. The Supreme Court has ruled against some of the governmental actions toward the refugees and newspapers can and do write negatively about the State’s treatment of the Africans. Israel is doing something terrible, but looking at the past of our country, the USA, we see that we have made mistakes as well – no democracy is perfect. The beauty of a democratic government though, is that while it is never unflawed, there is always the possibility that, if someone is passionate and tenacious, no ill-treatment or wrongdoing is perpetual.