What about the African refugees?

By Arlene Kushner

A brief word about the issue of African refugees coming into Israel via Egypt, as I suspect this is something that’s making press in the US.

Some of those who have come — as I understand it, roughly 3,000 over time — have been kept here in Israel (where there is discussion as to what to do with them) and some have been turned back to Egypt. The situation is vastly complicated — far more complicated than would appear at first glance — and exceedingly painful.

In a nutshell, there is the feeling that we Jews here in Israel have a moral obligation to receive suffering refugees. And that perspective tugs at my own heart, without a doubt. It comes from the gut, in terms of who we are and how we are supposed to act.

But — while I believe mistakes have been made in handling them — Israeli officials who respond differently are not necessarily being heartless and without compassion or sense of responsibility.

When one hears “African refugee” one thinks first of Darfur, and this obscures the larger issue. For it turns out that less than 1/4 of those who have come here are from Darfur (most of whom have been kept), and just over 50% are from Sudan at all. The rest are from various other parts of Africa.

Word has apparently gotten out that if you can get yourself to Egypt, and then over the Sinai border to the Negev, that’s a wise move. But this could result in absolutely huge and untenable numbers arriving that we are simply not capable of coping with; we are a small nation with a host of problems and an African Jewish population (from Ethiopia) that we are still contending with absorbing. We cannot accept unlimited numbers of refugees, and that message must be delivered; there is talk about building a fence so that they cannot get into Israel.

Then there is a further concern — though there has been no evidence yet that this has been the case — that active enemies of Israel from Africa might come with a refugee population. In particular there is concern about al-Qaida, which has an African presence.

Part of the problem in handling this has been Egypt’s reprehensible way of dealing with the refugees. From that perspective it is easy to understand why they’d prefer to jump the border and take their chances in Israel (and why our sensitivity is necessary). There was one obscene incident witnessed by Israeli soldiers at the border who saw a refugee killed. If some refugees are being returned to Egypt, acceptable conditions for them must be assured — and apparently arrangements have been made with Mubarak. Beyond this, it is appropriate for the international community — the UN High Commission for Refugees and various NGOs — to be involved here.

According to an Israeli Foreign Ministry official: “Given Israel’s size and limited resources, it has taken significant measures. Israel is well aware of its responsibility as a sovereign state, but we cannot address this complex issue on our own.”

August 31, 2007 | 1 Comment »

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1 Comment / 1 Comment

  1. Why does Israel have a “moral” responsibility when Africa nations, the Mid-East Nations, Europe, Asia and the Americas don’t have the same moral obligation? It is enough that Israel has a moral obligation for Jews. We can be a light unto the nations by showing them how a nation should support its own. More than that we need not do.

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