Aid groups and several members of parliament (MPs) are outraged by what seems to be the toughening of Israeli policy towards asylum-seekers illegally entering the country.
An “infiltration” law, the first draft of which has passed through parliament, is up for approval in the coming weeks despite efforts by NGOs to stop it. If approved, the law will regard anyone illegally entering the country as a criminal, and will allow a sentence of up to seven years for any asylum-seeker from an “enemy” country.
"Enemy" countries are Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Libya. However, very few if any asylum-seekers try to enter Israel from all but the first three of these countries. Almost all enter via Egypt.
The law would also incriminate NGOs and volunteers assisting such people and would allow for the detention of illegal minors.
Oded Diner of Amnesty International has urged immediate action to stop approval of the law but was dismayed when MPs Danny Danon (Likud party), Dov Khanin (Hadash) and Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) had their proposal to exclude the detention of illegal minors and children rejected on 3 November by parliament’s legislation committee.
Amnesty International has called on parliament to “reject the draft law and to ensure that any immigration or national security provisions that are introduced into law fully respect Israel’s international human rights obligations by ensuring that individuals within their jurisdiction are protected, regardless of their immigration status, and that individuals are not returned to a state where they could be at risk of serious human rights violations”.
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Exasperated aid workers told IRIN they were fed up and uncertain of their future. One, who did not want to be named, said she worked with asylum-seekers near the Egypt border and that she would be forced to become a criminal if the law is passed.
Work camps planned
The Israeli army’s Radio Galgalatz on 4 November said the Ministry of Finance had come up with a plan to “deter illegal infiltrators from coming to Israel”.
Under the plan, basic accommodation would be provided for asylum-seekers in camps in Israel’s southern Negev desert and the Arava region. They would be given food, shelter and basic medical care in return for unpaid work, mainly in agriculture.
Asylum-seekers would be forced to stay in the camps until their status is determined, though it is unclear what would happen to those not granted refugee status. Israel does not allow Southern Sudanese and Eritreans (the bulk of asylum-seekers) access to refugee status determination.
“This will deter those so-called asylum-seekers from coming here,” a member of the Israeli government told IRIN on condition of anonymity. “They are not refugees, they are simply migrant workers using the refugee story to get work, medical care and free education for their children in Israel. We believe that over 80 percent are not refugees.”
Photo: Tamar Dressler/IRIN
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There are some 7,500 Eritrean and 6,000 Sudanese asylum-seekers in Israel, according to the Refugee Rights Forum, an umbrella group representing eight human rights organizations in Israel. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) puts the total figure of asylum-seekers at around 18,000.
However, Israel’s immigration authority says there are over 24,000, mainly from Sudan and Eritrea, have “infiltrated” Israel over the past five years. Only about 450 from Darfur have received legal residency in Israel as a “humanitarian gesture”.
According to sources in the Israeli army, 400-600 African asylum-seekers illegally enter Israel every month. While many are able to find work in Israel, some rely on aid from NGOs. About 2,000 are detained at any given time in various detention facilities.
"The migrant workers and refugees will bring diseases and other problems to Israel, including AIDS, tuberculosis and drug abuse," Eli Yishay, Israel's interior minister, said in an interview on 2 November on Israel's Channel 2 TV.
For and against the plan
While many in the government are in favour of the deterrence plan, some MPs are horrified. Khanin told IRIN: "The war waged by Israel against the refugees is rolling the state of Israel down the morality slope. This agenda is anti-humanitarian and anti-Judaism. It has no place in a state that was erected by refugees."
Other MPs told IRIN they found the plan so offensive they would not credit it with a response.
NGOs working with refugees in Israel have also expressed their concerns. "These work camps will not deter people escaping horrors from coming here," said one aid worker who did not want to be named. "It will only take away the meagre living they were able to make up until now and provide, in fact, slaves in work camps."
When asked about the plan, the spokesperson’s office at the Ministry of Finance refused to discuss the draft law in detail.