Eritrean and Sudanese Refugees in TA - AP photo
Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers in Israel – 2013 – AP Photo

This week Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed a solution to the Eritrean and Sudanese refugee challenge in Israel. These people had come to Israel between 2003 and 2010 as part of a great northward migration of Africans who were en mass escaping brutal dictatorships and instability of their respective countries.

In 2010, to stop the flow of refugees coming into Israel at the rate of about 3000 people per month, Israel built a fence. These refugees had walked from Africa into Israel. Many had died along the way from a variety of causes.

In 2010, 37,000 refugees were living in South Tel Aviv where Israeli soldiers, who had picked them up upon their entry into Israel, dropped them to fend for themselves. They had come, of course, without work permits. There was massive overcrowding in small tenement apartments, and local Israeli residents were fearful of the large numbers of black African men who had concentrated there (85% of the Refugees are men).

The Israeli NGO “Hot Line for Refugees,” based in Tel Aviv, was helping these people get jobs and make application for political asylum. To date, however, not one Eritrean or Sudanese refugee has been granted asylum. Though many Israelis feared a rise in the crime rate due to the growth of this refugee population, the Hot Line notes that the crime rate among the refugee population is far lower than the national Israeli crime rate.

The challenge before the government of Israel was what to do with these refugees. There have always been options – accept them as seekers of political asylum, offer them permanent settlement with work permits, offer them a pathway to become citizens, or treat them as interlopers and economic migrants and expel them?

The Prime Minister finally announced his solution this week. In cooperation with Rwanda, Israel will deport 20,000 Africans, give Rwanda $5000 per refugee to help settle them, and give $3500 as a “gift” to each refugee who is deported. If the refugees refuse to be deported, then they will be sent to a real prison.

This option has been condemned by the United Nations Commission for Refugees and other human rights groups.

Traditional Jewish values of welcoming the stranger and our own Jewish historical experience has led many of us to hope that Israel would welcome these people and grant them political asylum. 37,000 people in a nation of 7.5 million is a very small percentage of the total population. Welcoming them clearly has not happened.

The host of the Israeli TV1 Broadcast “The Promised,” Noah Efron, and his fellow journalists Don Futterman (the Director of the Moriah Fund and Haaretz columnist), and Charlotte Halle (the Haaretz International Director) this week discuss this challenging issue thoughtfully, critically, and with liberal Jewish values in mind. I urge you to listen to their discussion. The segment “Take Our Tired Our Poor Our Huddled Masses Yearning to Breathe Free” begins at 15 minutes and 40 seconds and concludes at 29 minutes and 40 seconds.

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