Israel's pain over Darfur refugees


Darfur refugee in Israel Since the humanitarian crisis began in Darfur in 2003, according to credible sources 200,000 Sudanese have been killed, 2.2 million have been internally displaced, approximately 236,000 have fled to neighbouring Chad and 60,000 to Egypt. Each year in that same period of time approximately 700 African migrants have walked across Egypt's border into Israel. In 2007, the number of migrants that came through Egypt into Israel greatly increased. As the numbers have continued to rise, Israel has been eager to curb the migration across its borders.

The crisis in Darfur can largely be attributed to the emergence of militias that have attacked civilians. The predomininantly African population of Darfur has been subjected to raping, pillaging and mass murder led by so-called Janjaweed militias, which are ethnically Arab in origin. Complicating things further, some Janjaweed tribes are now fighting each other, with the Terjem fighting the Mahria and further south the Habanniya fighting with the Salamat. Many allege the Janjaweed have the tacit approval of the government in Khartoum. The Sudanese President, Lieutenant-General Omar al-Bashir, has denied this allegation. He has also finally agreed to co-operate with United Nations and African Union, allowing a 26,000-strong joint peace keeping force to be deployed.

Meanwhile, some Sudanese have fled terror in their country and managed to reach Israel after crossing Egypt, where they might have stayed for one month or forty. They have done this in the hope of a higher standard of living and more freedom in Israel, though in the past three months Egyptian border police have shot at, killed and beaten Sudanese attempting to cross the border.

By June 2007, 50 to 70 migrants were entering Israeli territory each night. Sudanese have been heading to northern Egypt, where Bedouins charge up to $2400 to be guided to Israel's borders. Due to Israel's prominence in the region, African migrants sometimes think Israel is a large country and not a sliver of land that is approximately one-tenth the size of Victoria, with a population of 6.9 million to support.

In July 2007, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced that any further illegal immigrants caught trying to enter into Israel via the border with Egypt would be returned to Egypt. This decision came after an agreement was reached with Egyptian Prime Minister Hosni Mubarak that the Sudanese would not be sent back to Sudan. Egyptian officials have since denied the existence of such an agreement.

A student petition urging the Israeli government not to return Sudanese refugees to Egypt has also been signed by 63 of the 120-seat Israeli Knesset. Aliza Olmert, Ehud's wife, has also been campaigning to protect Sudanese refugees. The Associated Press has reported that Israeli government spokesman David Baker claimed the African migrants were 'illegal economic migrants', indicating that many are not be entitled to refugee status in Israel, despite what is widely considered to be an ongoing humanitarian disaster within Sudan.

Darfur refugee in Israel Israel's policy on new arrivals is, in short, contradictory at times. Forty-eight newly-arrived migrants were returned to Egpyt in an overnight operation on 18 August 2007, but on 4 September 2007 Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit said several hundred Darfur refugees already in Israel would be granted citizenship. Sheetrit also said that his ministry had been working with the UN to assess applications for asylum.

Whilst awaiting the outcome of their applications for asylum, many of the migrants have been placed in the low-security Ketziot prison. As bad as this may sound, some of the migrants have said conditions are better than those in Sudan or Egypt. Other migrants have received temporary permits to work and live on communal farms (known as kibbutzim and moshavim) or to live with local volunteers. Although Israel was unprepared for this unexpected wave of migration, a new facility was built in July near the Ketziot prion to hold up to 1000 more people.

Israel has not specifically justified the deportation of the 48 migrants. If this action was part of a blanket closed door policy which precludes the possibility of claims for asylum being properly determined, then Israel will be falling short of its ethical obligations to all legitimate refugees, and possibly also its legal obligations. However, some migrants may in fact be properly characterised as 'economic migrants' as opposed to refugees entitled to asylum, if it they are not seeking to directly escape persecution but are merely pursuing a better life.

Security is understandably also a major consideration for the Israeli government. The consequences of terrorists infiltrating Israel's borders would be severe. Israel is also a small country and could not cope with all of Africa's would-be economic immigrants, who currently can literally walk in through the relatively unsecured southern border. So between determining 'real' refugees from 'economic' migrants, worrying about security threats, trying to provide safe harbour for people genuinely in need and calculating what the country can actually manage to provide, Israel is facing a major challenge at present.

Israel is likely to increase border security whilst also encouraging Egypt to fulfil its human rights obligations to the refugees and migrants within its borders. Further, Israel may consider revamping its entire immigration policy, which is designed primarily to assist immigrants with Jewish familial connections in accordance with Israel's constitutional goal of establishing a Jewish state. Although Israel is desperate to discourage the influx of migration from Africa, Israel's readiness to accept the Darfurians and the establishment of a facility to hold up to 1000 migrants indicates that Israel is taking its obligations to genuine refugees seriously and will be influenced by humanitarian principles.



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Existing comments

I am very proud that the State of Israel has taken in so many refugees from war-torn Darfur.

It shows up the disgrace of the the Arab nations who have refused to allow any of their co-religionists to settle in any one of the numerous Arab and/or Muslim countries around the globe.

And they have the cheek to call Israel racist??
Arik Yacobi | 04 October 2007

What hypocrisy. Israel won't even let Palestinian refugees go back to the homes stolen from them by the Israeli's so why would they treat Darfur refugees with any trace of humanity.

Last year Israel murdered another 475 Palestinians including 92 children.
Marilyn Shepherd | 04 October 2007

I think australia should feeel embarassed by its treatment of refugees, as compared to israel, and many other countries besides.
andy johnson | 04 October 2007

To Marilyn,

Is it hypocritical that Israel is trying to help some Sudanese and not others?

Or is it hypocritical that Israel is helping some Muslims and not others? (some of the African migrants in Israel are Muslim)

However, the story here is about Israel's dillemma in trying to help those Sudanese in need, but at the same time protect itself from people trying to take advantage of Israel's relatively high standard of living and its respect for human rights

Jay Leonard | 05 October 2007

It is a credit to tiny Israel, only 60 years old, that it has accommodated more refugees per capita than any other country on earth. These refugees have come from diverse backgrounds such as from Europe, Russia, Jews expelled by Arab nations and Vietnamese boat people.

Why does the world pick on Isael for criticism despite its exemplary treatment and adoption of refugees, and turn a blind eye to the many countries which refuse to accept Africans?
Bella Ceruza | 06 October 2007

Israel has accepted more refugees per head of population than any other country. This includes nearly a million Jews expelled from Arab countries. As to Israel's treatment of Arabs, read the Israeli Declaration of Independence which states that:
Israel will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions;
Ilana Adler | 06 October 2007

Marilyn, I share the pain of Palestinians, but don't blame Israel for their misfortune. Palestinian leadership has refused to accept many offers of independence, preferring to divert international aid inteneded for Palsetinians into their own pockets, or use it for war. Read the truth - go to
Ruth Romleigh | 07 October 2007

Burstyner writes that refugees seek Israel because Israel is 'prominent'. What an understatement! Refugees seek Israel because Israel is the only country in the region that offers equality irrespective of ethnicity or gender, freedom of religion, decent social welfare, health care, education and political stability. Despite the untold oil wealth of other Middle Eastern countries, leaderships remain in power by annihilating their opposition, subjugating women and ruling by terror. Why migrate to Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq or Lebanon? ..Migrants won't even stay in Egypt, which has relative stability, but where soldiers recently bludgeoned a Sudanese refugee to death for trying to escape.
Graeme Martin | 08 October 2007


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