Feature: A Conflict Between Policy and Values
When he was 13, Akon told us, the government-backed militia came to his village in southern Sudan.
“They started killing people and burning their houses,” Akon said, speaking so quietly that I had to lean over our coffee cups to hear his voice amid the music in the Jerusalem café. “They killed my mother. My sister, they raped her, and she died.” The militiamen took Akon to northern Sudan, where they sold him as a slave.
So began the nine-year odyssey that brought him to Jerusalem.
Looking across the table, I saw lines in a dark face. He looked much older than 22 years. The family that bought him, he said, put him to work taking care of their cattle and camels. He was the first to rise each day, the last to sleep. He was beaten and insulted. Because he would not convert from Christianity to Islam, he said, “I was a devil in their eyes.”
Slavery was something I had read about in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and history textbooks. Now a former slave sat across from me. I thought of inviting him to my Pesah Seder, then wondered what he would think of the words. My son, who had come with me, is almost Akon’s age. Afterward he said he felt as if he had listened to testimony from the Holocaust, without the distance of decades to soften it.
Eventually Akon was bought and freed by a Christian aid group. He tried returning to his village in the south, but it was cut off by civil war. So he traveled to Khartoum, then fled onward to Egypt, where he joined the refugee community in Cairo. Telling his story, he mentions his activism among the south Sudanese. Repeatedly he was arrested. In prison, the Egyptian authorities let Sudanese intelligence agents question and torture him.
He feared that if he were arrested again, he would be sent back to northern Sudan and “be disappeared.” He and a friend decided to escape to Israel. The friend’s mother sold jewelry to pay the Bedouin smugglers who guided them on foot from El-Arish across the Sinai Desert. When they crossed the border into Israel one night in June 2006, they were found by an Israel Defense Forces patrol and sent to Ketziot prison in the Negev. Under Israeli law, they were told, they had come from an enemy country. “We explained that we are not enemies to Israel,” he said, and that “after the Jews were in genocide, in Sudan the government is committing genocide.”
Several prisons and more than a year later, with no explanation, Akon was released. He lived in Eilat, then in Tel Aviv, where he hoped to find a way to finish high school and instead worked in a restaurant. Several months before I met him, he said, “The Interior Ministry told everyone”—meaning Africans seeking refuge in Israel—“to leave Tel Aviv.” He came to Jerusalem and found kitchen work.
Rather than a visa, he carries papers from the Israel office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees stating that he is an asylum seeker awaiting a decision on his request for refugee status. He can work, but has no certainty of his future. He still dreams of studying, but when he looks forward, he said, “I don’t see any anything.”
Akon isn’t alone. What began as a trickle of people seeking a haven in Israel has become a stream: from 1,400 in 2006, according to the UNHCR, to 5,600 in 2007 to 6,700 in the first 10 months of 2008. Most started their treks in East Africa—fleeing the brutal regime in Eritrea or war in southern Sudan or the killing fields of Darfur—and tried to find safety in Egypt. From there, they came through the desert to Israel.
This is a kind of immigration that Israel never expected. The country was created to solve the world’s longest-running refugee problem, the homelessness of the Jews. We did not imagine non-Jews arriving with nothing in hand but stories of persecution and requests for safety. Yet Israel is in a unique position: It has become a First World country economically. It is a Western democracy. Yet unlike other countries with those characteristics, it has a land border with Africa. Geographically, it is just down the block from Sudan and Eritrea, just down the block from hell.
In the diaspora, Jews have united around the cause of ending genocide in Darfur. Meanwhile, the edge of the wave of refugees from Darfur has reached across the Sinai sands to Israel. So far, the official response appears confused, sometimes harsh, aimed mainly at preventing the immigration of strangers. Yet as a Jewish state, Israel is also unique: It has a collective memory of what it means to be homeless, to be refused safety. The dispossessed crossing Israel’s border, I would suggest, are inviting us to take world leadership on the issue of African refugees.
East Africans aren’t the only people asking for refugee status in Israel. A UNHCR official mentions Ghanaians and Nigerians who arrive as pilgrims and ask for asylum, along with people who came from various countries on work permits and would-be immigrants from the former Soviet Union who don’t qualify under the Law of Return.
But the East Africans, as a group, most clearly seem to fit the definition of people who deserve asylum under the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. According to that treaty, a refugee is someone who cannot return to his home country due to “a well-founded fear of being persecuted” for reasons including their race, religion or political opinions.
After five years of a government-backed campaign of killing in Darfur, the fears of the uprooted are surely well founded. In southern Sudan, there’s now a fragile cease-fire. But those who left the region fear retribution from the government in the north, especially after having been in Israel. Egypt, as Akon’s testimony shows, is not a safe refuge. Eritrea, explains attorney Oded Feller of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, has “a cruel, totalitarian regime.” Men are rounded up for military service that can last a lifetime. The United States State Department’s human rights report says draft evaders have died in prison after “harsh treatment by security forces.”
Israel was one of the first signatories of the 1951 convention on refugees. Not only that, says attorney Anat Ben-Dor of the Refugees Rights Clinic at Tel Aviv University, Israel and Jewish organizations had significant input in formulating the treaty, based on lessons of the Holocaust. Ben-Dor’s legal clinic is one of a number of nongovernmental Israeli groups helping asylum seekers.
The government’s policy, Ben-Dor says, has been inconsistent. Judging by actions, officialdom is surprised, afraid and uncertain of how to cope with refugees.
In August 2007, as the number of people trekking into Israel rose, the prime minister’s office said it had agreed with Egypt that infiltrators would be sent back immediately. A group of 48 was returned to Egypt. One Foreign Ministry explanation for the tough stand was that “an Al-Qaeda presence exists in Sudan.”
Diaspora Jewish groups protested. In Israel, 63 Knesset members signed a petition against the policy. Reversing course, the government granted temporary resident status to 600 Darfuris who arrived by early 2008.
Yet “hot return” of some border crossers resumed later in the year. As of this writing, the legality of the policy is before the Supreme Court. According to media reports, Egypt has sent some of the Sudanese returned from Israel back to Sudan.
More zigzags: Darfuris who came later in 2008 have not received residency. Nor have southern Sudanese, perhaps because their region’s tragedy is less well known. Eritreans who came by the end of 2007 received visas that allow them to work but do not grant social benefits due Israeli residents. Eritreans who arrived later have not gotten visas. Asylum-seekers without visas were told to leave the Tel Aviv area. But that is where jobs, and volunteer groups who help refugees, are plentiful. The Interior Ministry holds the main responsibility for dealing with immigration. Unfortunately, my repeated requests to interview a ministry official who could explain these policies in depth went unanswered.
Insecurity about a flood of refugees would hardly make Israel unusual among nations. Proximity to Africa may increase the anxiety. And a country of seven million people obviously can’t rescue everyone.
That said, the response of Israeli NGOs helping asylum seekers seems more attuned to Jewish memory than does the official reaction. We are, after all, the people who, in every generation, see ourselves as if we came out from Egypt. At Yad Vashem, one section of the museum portrays the unwillingness of Western nations to accept Jewish refugees before and during the Holocaust. “Australia cannot do more…as we have no racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one,” reads a legend on a wall, quoting an Australian official. Britain, the exhibition points out, turned a refugee ship away from Palestine, claiming it might be carrying German agents. We demand that the world remember.
So let us imagine an alternative policy. If the stream of refugees does become a flood, Israel should announce that it is convening an international conference on Yad Vashem’s spacious campus. There the representatives of the nations will be asked to stand to make commitments on how many refugees they will accept. Israel, which now has one-twentieth the population that the United States had in 1939, should agree to one-twentieth the number of Jews we think America should have accepted then. Let us make something heroic of our memory. H