No Refuge in the Land of Refugees

At the turn of the 20th century, the Zionist movement rejected the so-called Uganda Plan proposed by Britain to provide the Jews with a homeland in Africa. Almost 110 years later, their descendants are begging Uganda to take in Africans who have sought safe haven in the Jewish homeland in Israel.

The irony has been lost on Israel's government, which recently announced that Uganda had agreed to take in African citizens who crossed into Israel from Egypt to seek asylum. The agreement, which Uganda officially denies, reflects a determined Israeli policy to rid the country of all non-Jews claiming to have fled persecution in their lands, a policy which ignores the suffering of the Jews themselves who were persecuted and unwanted over the ages.

Israel, built for Jewish refugees, has the lowest refugee recognition record of any democratic, Western state. According to data collected by the UN Refugee Agency, over the past 40 years Israel has granted refugee status to 180 petitioners, in all.

It's unclear how many people applied for recognition as refugees throughout that period. But one can get an idea from the data published by the Israeli state comptroller general for the eight years starting in 2000: Some 8,400 people requested recognition as refugees in accordance with criteria defined by the United Nations, 110 requests were granted.

More amazing is the fact that since 2009, some 47,000 African asylum seekers infiltrated Israel through the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula. But, according to Israel's ministry of interior, only some 25 were granted recognition as refugees fleeing persecution.

In all fairness, one should note that virtually none of the 47,000 applied for refugee status -- not for lack of desire. They were simply prevented by Israeli authorities from doing so, using bureaucratic and policy tools.

Its most significant move in order to prevent such massive petitioning for asylum, was to announce that it would grant collective protection to citizens of Eritrea, Sudan and several other African states. The move was not motivated by generosity. Israel had to provide such protection under the UN conventions of which it is a signatory, in keeping with the UN determination that these countries posed a danger to the lives of those who fled them.

The collective protection prevents Israel from expelling Africans from those states -- although the authorities keep making various attempts to do so using guile and a mixture of economic incentives and threats. But Israel withholds from them all other benefits provided asylum seekers under international agreements. Laws and regulations adopted by successive Israeli governments bar the refuge seekers from working, allow their incarceration for up to three years and, in the latest edict, prohibit them from sending home any money they make in Israel performing illegal labor.

In an unusual move, two weeks ago an expanded panel of nine high court justices overturned the 2012 law that allowed the state to detain illegal migrants for up to three years without charging them with a crime, ruling it was unconstitutional.

Israel claims that its particular circumstances as an embattled island in a hostile neighborhood and as the only Western country with a land border with the troubled African continent, grant it special dispensation to protect itself against waves of asylum seekers. The state also insists that the African border infiltrators are, in fact, illegal economic migrants seeking work, rather than victims of persecution in their lands.

How is it, then, that while Israel rejects them as refugees and labels them labor migrants, 74 percent of Eritrean asylum seekers and 71 percent of Sudanese have been granted individual refugee status in other countries around the world due to the danger of execution, lengthy imprisonment, torture and hard labor they face at home?

There's no denying that Israel has a right to protect its borders against infiltration by enemies, but for decades it failed to erect a fence on its desert border with Egypt despite widespread smuggling and terror threats. The fence was only built recently and completed this year -- to stem the flow of asylum seekers.

Having blocked off access, the question remains of the state's treatment of more than 50,000 Africans who are still here. Israel is not alone in this regard. Most industrialized, democratic nations have had to deal with the same issues -- the United States with the vast number of migrants crossing its 3,000-kilometer border with Mexico, Western Europe with hundreds of thousands of migrants from the economically disadvantaged east, Mediterranean countries like Spain and Italy with massive migration from Africa (across the sea), and more.

They all struggle to find solutions, sometimes in violation of human rights and international law, yet somehow, they don't forget that there are others out there less fortunate than themselves. Sadly, Israel has forgotten.