Israel, UN Tackle Refugee Problem

Sheera Claire Frenkel, Jerusalem Post, August 9, 2007

Israel is looking to the United Nations to recommend who should qualify for refugee status and to suggest host countries for the thousands of African refugees currently in Israel, UN and Israeli officials told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.

“We are working in full cooperation with the Israeli government to try and find a solution for both the uncontrolled boundary between Israel and Egypt and for the refugees that have already entered Israel,” said Michael Bavli, the representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel. “The UN is involved in every aspect of the situation.”

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel has been meeting regularly with officials in the Prime Minister’s Office to discuss solutions for the estimated 2,400 African asylum-seekers in the country.

Approximately half are from war-torn regions of Sudan and have come to Israel via refugee camps in Egypt. More than 300 are from Darfur, where the first genocide of the 21st century is taking place, according to the US.

“In coordination with the UN, Israel will set a quota and absorb the refugees with the same compassion that we absorbed the Vietnamese refugees,” said Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, referring to the 300 Vietnamese boat-people who were absorbed by Israel. “It appears most likely that the refugees who ultimately remain in Israel will be those from Darfur, since it seems clear that they have suffered the most.”

The criteria for who will be granted asylum in Israel, and who will be deported, have yet to be determined. UN representatives have interviewed approximately one-third of the Sudanese refugees, and they will not issue recommendations until the interviews are complete.

“We cannot cope with the speed at which they are entering the country, and the backlog continues to grow,” said Bavli. “Ultimately, the decision on the quota will not be dictated by numbers, but on a personal, case-by-case basis.”

Both Bavli and Sheetrit stressed that until the border between Egypt and Israel was sealed and the flow of refugees controlled, it would be impossible to proceed with a plan for the asylum-seekers.

“The more refugees who arrive, the more the problem is exacerbated, and the more difficult it is to come to a solution for those already here,” said Sheetrit. “A top priority for me is to establish a fence along the Egypt-Israel border.”

The flow of refugees has swelled from several hundred for all of 2006 to the current 50-60 a day. Sheetrit attributed the increase to refugees in Israel reporting back to family members about the jobs and living conditions available in the Jewish state. Human rights organizations, however, attribute the violence facing refugees in Egypt for the increased numbers.

Several refugees have died along the border recently; on Wednesday the body of Ibrahim Abdallah Bakhit Muhammad, a 30-year-old Sudanese man, was reportedly found bound hand and foot and bloodied from a beating, outside a village in northern Sinai.

Egyptian police said he had likely argued with the Beduin smugglers who run the human trafficking between Israel and Egypt. An official said it was not uncommon for smugglers to kill migrants who refused to pay what they had promised.

Last week, IDF soldiers witnessed Egyptian forces killing four refugees who were trying to cross the fence into Israel. The soldiers said the Egyptians shot and killed two of the refugees, and dragged the other two away from the fence before beating them to death. The soldiers added that while the IDF had a tape of the incident, they would not release it for “diplomatic reasons.”

Last month, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced that Israel would begin deporting refugees to Egypt under an agreement with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Under the agreement, Egypt was to establish a mechanism for the refugee’s deportation, and to increase security along the border.

The decision to deport the refugees was criticized by a number of organizations including Amnesty International, the Hotline for Migrant Workers, and the Committee for the Rights of the Refugees.

Amnesty has launched an on-line petition to allow the refugees to remain in Israel, which has been forwarded to the Interior Ministry. The petition includes a video of refugees singing Hatikva in a Sudanese dialect of Arabic.

“Our message in using the national anthem was to remind Israelis that we too were once refugees here. Who will give them a hand if not us?” a spokeswoman for Amnesty asked. “No one is arguing for Israel to absorb millions of refugees, but we can’t return them to Egypt where we are hearing of the increased violence they face there.”

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees declined to comment on which countries were being considered as an address for the refugees. In the past, Australia, the United States, France, Canada and Switzerland have taken in thousands of refugees from Sudan.

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