1. Many people feel that the Africans in Israel are not truly asylum seekers, but simply economic migrants looking for better lives. What is the reality?
Very often there is confusion between the terms “refugees” and “economic migrants,” which leads to wrong conclusions and xenophobic reactions. Refugees flee because of the threat of persecution and cannot return safely to their homes in the prevailing circumstances. An economic migrant normally leaves a country voluntarily to seek a better life.
The situation in Israel is as following: UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) statistics indicate that about 85-90 % of the estimated 30,000 sub-Saharan Africans in Israel are refugees from war-torn countries. Most of them come from Sudan and Eritrea, The Israeli government acknowledges that these people cannot return to their home countries, since their life would be endangered.
Nearly 10 percent Israel’s workforce is made up of about 250,000 migrant workers, mostly from Asia. Most of them are here legally, since the Israeli Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor gives each year a number of work permits to foreign workers. They typically work in agriculture, nursing and construction, for low wages, and are subject to horrific exploitation in some cases.
The confusion between refugees and migrant workers is intentionally caused by the Israeli government: The government tries to portray refugees as migrant so that they do not win public sympathy. Labeled as migrant workers, the government has an excuse not to provide refugees and asylum seekers with any form of assistance and clear legal rights. Many continue to be detained in prison camps and hundreds have been returned to Egypt without undergoing any fair asylum procedure. Upon return to Egypt they often face torture and imprisonment.
The reality is that most of the people embarking to the horrible and perilous journey from Egypt through the Sinai desert are people whose life are in danger in their respective home country. They would be accepted as refugees in other countries, but Israel does not grant them these rights.
2. What do you think Israel should do for and about the thousands of Africans currently in the country?
First and foremost, Israel must have a fair, comprehensive and effective asylum system, through which it can be determined who is a refugee and who is not. Though signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the Israeli government has not adopted asylum legislation.
The waiting period prior to a decision on the asylum application takes months or years, leaving asylum seekers in a prolonged legal limbo. Police raids and arrests, at times ending with detention, are common during this waiting period. During this time, asylum seekers do neither get any form of governmental assistance, nor a chance to support themselves, for instance, through being granted a work permit. Uncertainty concerning one’s status places an enormous psychological burden on refugees and asylum seekers.
Virtually all developed countries have asylum laws and special procedures for asylum seekers. Israel must also adhere to international standard and adopt an asylum law and a fair refugee policy.
Beyond that, Israel has a special moral obligation to provide a safe haven for the present refugees and victims of genocide. Not long ago, the Jews themselves experienced denial of their rights in many european countries during the holocaust.
3. How have recent events in Egypt effected the Africans trying to get to Israel?
I remain deeply concerned for the welfare of the vulnerable citizens and refugees in Egypt, Libya and other Arab countries, who are being denied even the most basic level of assistance.
African refugees in Egypt and Libya have been regularly subject to racism, abuse and arbitrary imprisonment for a number of years; Recently, in Libya, with reports of African mercenaries fighting on the side of the government, there has been a sharp rise in harassment and violent attack.
During the last weeks, Israel experienced a decrease in refugees arriving from the Egypt border. Due to the unrest in Egypt and the movement restrictions within the country, smugglers were unable to use their routes to Israel during this time. As a consequence, recently, less Africans arrived to Israel via the Sinai desert.
4. What is the status of the border fence between Israel and Egypt and the refugee camp being built in the Negev? How will this impact the Africans currently in Israel and those who may arrive?
So far, 12 kilometers of the electric fence along the Israel-Egypt border have been completed, including the barbed wire along the top. From the information I have, the border fence is expected to be completed in the first quarter of year 2013 and the first 100 kilometers out of 210 kilometers are expected to be completed by the end of 2011.
Israel is planning a refugee detention facility in the Negev desert, close to the Egyptian border. This camp should hold 10,000 people who enter Israel via the Egyptian border. I believe that such a facility is neither beneficial for the state of Israel nor for the refugee and it undermines a fair asylum procedure. First of all, I believe that the camp would not stop the refugees coming via Egypt, but it would worsen their physical and psychological well-being.
My second concern is directed towards the humanitarian conditions in the future camp. Currently asylum seekers are kept in harsh conditions in smaller camp facilities, including Ketziot Prison. Small children and mothers are held in crowded tents, in the heat and without proper conditions. It is unclear how Israel can establish a much larger facility without putting an asylum system in place through which each individual goes to determine his or her case.
Most importantly, the construction of the camp would undermine Israel’s obligation under international refugee law: To incarcerate survivors of torture, rape and war without time limits and without judicial review is in contravention of international conventions for the protection of refugees.