Like Australia, Israel has a major problem of what to do with asylum-seekers. And, like Australia with our proposed Malaysia solution in 2011, Israeli legislation aimed at curbing the influx has been thrown out by the country’s highest court.
Those seeking refuge in Israel did not come by boat. They came across the Sinai from Egypt, many having to pay up to $2000 to Bedouin people smugglers. The majority were Sudanese and Eritreans fleeing abusive regimes. They used to fly to Cairo for refuge until police broke up a peaceful demonstration by Sudanese in 2005 and killed 20 of them.
Last year, with more than 55,000 having reached Israel, there was growing disquiet. The Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, called the new arrivals ‘illegal infiltrators’ who threatened the security and identity of the Jewish state.
Jerusalem decided to act with what was known as the Anti-Infiltration Law. It allowed Israel to detain the asylum-seekers for up to three years without trial. Two detention camps were hastily built – and, like Woomera, the main one is in a desert location. They house more than 1700 people – mainly men, but also women and children – in what social activists call harsh conditions.
Two weeks ago, the nine members of Israel’s High Court of Justice unanimously ruled the new law illegal because it violated Israel’s law on human dignity and disproportionately impinged on a person’s right to freedom.
One of the judges, Edna Arbel, noted: ‘We cannot deprive people of basic rights, using a heavy hand to impact their freedom and dignity, as part of a solution to a problem that demands a suitable, systemic and national solution’.
As welcome as this news was to the incarcerated, they remain locked up at time of writing. The Interior Ministry has 90 days – until mid-December – to review the inmates’ status. The Israeli government is said to be examining other ways of keeping them under detention.
The governing coalition’s Whip, Yariv Levin, denounced the court decision as ‘insane, breaking all records for anarchy and will turn Israel from a Jewish state into a state belonging to its migrants’. This is hardly likely when Israel has now managed to stem the flow of ‘the illegal infiltrators’.
Earlier this year, construction of a 230-kilometre fence from Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba to southern Gaza was completed. This has reduced the unwelcome visitors to a trickle.
Virtually all the now estimated 60,000 asylum-seekers in Israel remain in a legal limbo. Most have temporary protection visas which have to be renewed every three months.
Although they entered Israel from Egypt, Israel cannot send them back there because Cairo refuses to rule out returning them to their country of origin, where human rights are questionable. News reports in August suggested that Israel was planning to repatriate them to ‘safe’ African countries in return for military and other specialist aid. Jerusalem has denied this.
Uganda was mentioned as one such country. Ironically, it was a place which Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, once considered as a site for his Jewish homeland.
The majority of the asylum-seekers have made their home for now in Tel Aviv’s poorer southern suburbs. They have been subject to the predictable demonizing, including being blamed for criminal activity whereas statistics show that the rate of crime by others is much higher.
The government provides a range of social services, such as free education for children and free medical care for infants. An emergency medical clinic has been established along with psychiatric services for children.
But, said Sammy, a 32-year-old Eritrean quoted by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, ‘There is one big problem here – we have no ID, no papers, and no life’.
Mindful of the persecution of the Jews over the centuries and their need to escape, Israel has long championed the rights of refugees. It helped draft the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol protecting the rights of people fleeing persecution.
Indeed the Jewish Bible – the Old Testament to Christians – exhorts the faithful to ‘love the stranger as thyself, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt’.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news, including 15 as the ABC’s first international editor for television news and current affairs.