On April 2nd, we all experienced a moment of joy when the Prime Minister and the Interior Minister announced that they had reached what the Prime Minister termed a “landmark agreement” to finally solve the problem of the 35,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers in Israel.
The agreement with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated that within 5 years, the UN would resettle 16,000 refugees in western countries, where they would receive legal status and full rights as refugees. The remainder, who remained in Israel would be resettled in towns throughout Israel, they would be given legal status that would enable them to work and lead normal lives.
However, our joy was short-lived, as on the next day, April 3rd, only hours after the first announcement, the Prime Minister announced that he was cancelling the agreement!
What had happened in those few hours is unclear, there was a lot of criticism from some ministers – but Netanyahu doesn’t usually get scared by them. Netanyahu said that it was because of the opposition of the residents of South Tel Aviv. However, I believe that besides the group led by the obnoxious Sheffy Paz, most of the residence of South Tel Aviv saw the advantage of the agreement, which included investing large sums of money in the neighborhood and removing most of the asylum-seekers.
The zig-zag of the government is most unsettling for the asylum-seeking community, as is the situation now. After cancelling the agreement with the UN and knowing that there is no African country that will except them, Netanyahu is now seeking another solution. I believe that not having anywhere to send them, the government is going to introduce draconic laws that will put this vulnerable community in greater peril and make it even harder to continue living in Israel.
At this point, it is important to remind ourselves that this community is seeking refuge in Israel having fled from countries with brutal dictatorships and civil war, to which they cannot return.
Is there a solution? I believe there is and that with a little bit of respect for human rights and some foresight, the government could find a solution that is beneficial to all.
A few human rights organizations, including ASSAF and Doctors Without Borders, published a document that sets out a simple and effective plan. The main points being:
Investing in South Tel Aviv; repair infrastructure and reinforce social services, health and education. Building a safe environment suited to the needs of the community.
Geographical dispersion of the asylum-seekers throughout Israel.
Legal Employment - asylum seekers find it difficult to obtain work outside of Tel Aviv because of their unclear legal status. Legal work visas will reduce the concern of employers throughout Israel to employ them, and will increase their dispersal throughout the country
Incentives for Employment in the periphery and support for Local Authorities - the leaders of the country’s economy reiterate that there is a shortage of workers in fields such as industry, restaurants, hotels, cleaning, agriculture and construction. Granting work visas to asylum-seekers will strengthen businesses in the periphery that need working hands
Health insurance and welfare services - providing health insurance for asylum seekers and social benefits to this disadvantaged group will lead to the strengthening of the population of asylum- seekers and their better and safer integration into Israel
True examination of asylum applications and granting of refugee status - All asylum seekers should be allowed to submit asylum requests and to have them examined honestly, within a reasonable period of time and according to the law and standards set in the world.
This solution is simple, and the government could go back to the original agreement with the UN.
Will the Prime Minister take any of these roads? I am afraid not. The silence at the moment is ominous, and we can only wait until the government reaches a decision!