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Israel struggling to deal with influx of African asylum seekers

ICC Note

“They have been through such traumas. Their motivation is not to come here, it is to escape their fate at home,”

February 26, 2008 Israel (iht)-Sitting on a thin mattress, in a stuffy, urine-stenched underground bomb shelter, Tasfa Mara says he’s happy where he is. The 24-year-old Eritrean escaped forced conscription, beatings and a treacherous trek across three countries before reaching his own promised land a week ago.


Mara may not have a safe haven much longer. This week Israel plans to begin deporting thousands of African migrants who have marched in through its porous southern border in recent months, though it remains unclear how Israel will carry out the expulsions and where it will send them.


More than 7,000 have entered the country illegally in just over a year, including more than 2,000 this year alone, said Michael Bavly, a representative in Israel of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

The vast majority hail from Eritrea , where the U.N. says men are often forced into military service, and Sudan , where 2.5 million people have died in a 22-year civil war. Some of the Sudanese have come from the western region of Darfur , where fighting has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced 2.5 million since February 2003.

Israel, founded six decades ago in the wake of the Nazi genocide, has become torn between a sense of duty to help people fleeing persecution and fears of an onslaught of illegal immigrants. The result has been a confused policy full of contradictions.


But Israel has vowed the rest would be deported, claiming they are in the country purely for economic opportunities. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday directed authorities to expel the 4,500 Africans considered to be illegal immigrants, including people from the Ivory Coast , Ghana and Nigeria , by the end of the week.


Olmert’s office declined to discuss its expulsion order. But officials privately said it would be difficult, if not impossible, to carry out the order in the coming days.


Egypt , the most likely destination, has made it clear it does not want them back. Last year, Israel sent a group of 48 African refugees, mostly from Darfur, to Egypt after receiving assurances that they would not be harmed. But 20 of them were “asked to leave” and returned to Sudan , an Egyptian Foreign Ministry official said.

” Egypt is dealing with the refugees in line with the international law and for humanitarian purposes,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. ” Israel has no right to return them.”

Human Rights Watch said the Israeli and Egyptian actions in that case were “unconscionable,” saying the migrants faced likely persecution in Sudan because of their time in Israel , which is considered an enemy country.


Shevy Korzen, executive director of the Hotline for Migrant Workers in Tel Aviv, said imposing an arbitrary quota was “ridiculous” and that the government was obliged to let the U.N. evaluate each case.

“There are personal considerations, religious considerations and gender considerations,” she said. ” Israel is bound to international conventions.”


Speaking in broken English and pointing to his bandaged hands, Mara said he had nowhere else to go. ” Eritrea bad. Egypt bad. Sudan bad,” he said. He declined to discuss his past, saying only that two of his six traveling companions were shot down by Egyptian troops near the border with Israel .

Egyptian troops have killed at least six Africans since late January, according to Amnesty International. Last week, the human rights group accused Egypt of using “excessive force.”

Israeli defense officials said the army is working on fortifying the border to stop the flow of infiltrators, which now number about 50 a day. Defense Minister Ehud Barak inspected the border on Tuesday and vowed to build a 70-kilometer (45-mile) fence — covering roughly one-third of the border — within two years.


“They have been through such traumas. Their motivation is not to come here, it is to escape their fate at home,” said Yael Dayan, deputy mayor of Tel Aviv. “Whoever gets here, we take them in, but the government has to decide on a policy and on employment. It will not happen by itself.”


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