Monday, January 17, 2011

A Tough Time For African Asylum Seekers

Anna is a 5 month Community Service participant and University of Pittsburgh graduate originally from Maryland. Anna wrote an opinion piece on the state of African refugees in Israel for a recent Tikkun Olam newsletter.

I recognize that the drastic influx of asylum seekers poses a great challenge for the Israeli government.  However, I have been highly disappointed by the way in which the Israeli government has treated those escaping violent, targeted persecution over the past decade.  The government has used detention as the default course of action.  And, in the past few months, I have become exponentially more frustrated by proposals to limit asylum seekers right to work and to build a prison facility to house those currently living civilian lives in Israel.

African asylum seekers have been entering Israel in record numbers in the past few years.  In 2009, about 300 people entered Israel from Egypt each month.  In recent months, political and community leaders have articulated increasing hostility towards asylum seekers living in Israel.  Across the country, asylum seekers have been illegally denied work and housing.

In December, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed that a detention center be built to house about 10,000 individuals entering Israel from the Egyptian border.  The Prison Service would run the detention center, but Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch has stated that the Prison Service lacks the knowledge and experience necessary to address this civilian population.  This plan would also severely limit the movement of asylum seekers, in a manner that is both unjust and in violation of international Treaties to which Israel is party. It would prevent these asylum seekers from having any contact with Israeli society and force them to live as if they were incarcerated criminals.  Meanwhile, the Israeli government started to construct a barrier that will seal off parts of Egypt.  This barrier will make asylum seekers more susceptible to attack on the Egyptian side and cost many their lives.

As a democratic state and a state founded as a safe haven for those escaping persecution, Israel is obligated to treat its asylum-seeker population much more justly than afforded by the newly proposed policies.  Furthermore, Israel is a signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, but the government has not yet adopted substantive asylum legislation and the asylum process is marked by unclear policies and procedures. Asylum seekers have limited to no access to basic services such as health care, housing, education, vocational training and employment.  When one looks at the conditions of Eritrean and Sudanese nationals living in Israel, it is easy to forget that asylum seekers once governed this country. 

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