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Israel struggles with African refugee dilemma
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Aug 12, 2009 - 7:29:15 AM

Israel struggles with African refugee dilemma

JERUSALEM — Five years after a mounted militia stormed his village, torching houses and killing his relatives, Ibrahim Saad el-Din, a refugee from Sudan's Darfur region, gazed at remnants of another slaughter: hundreds of shoes worn by Jews killed in a Nazi death camp during the Holocaust.

Saad el-Din was among a dozen African refugees brought by an Israeli advocacy group to Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial last week, hoping to spur public sympathy for their plight by invoking the Jewish people's own history fleeing death and persecution.

Over 16,000 asylum seekers have poured into Israel in recent years, most from Africa, posing a unique dilemma for the Jewish state.

Israel is proud of its heritage as a refuge that took in hundreds of thousands of Jews who survived the Nazi genocide. But it's conflicted over refugees from elsewhere. Israel's many wars with its Arab neighbors have left it distrustful of outsiders, while some fear accepting non-Jews could threaten the state's Jewish character. As a result, it is struggling with how to handle the non-Jewish newcomers.

"The Jewish past makes us particularly mindful of the dangerous plight of exiles and refugees and the need to help them," said Yaron Ezrahi, a political science professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "But the smallness and siege mentality of our country given its hostile environment make us more committed to maintaining our majority."

Israeli refugee advocates criticize the state, saying stints in jail and the scant support asylum seekers find in Israel fail to honor the memory of Jewish persecution through the ages.

"I think it's a great shame the way we're behaving," said Sigal Rozen of the Hotline for Migrant Workers. "We have an extremely short memory."

Israel's current refugee influx started in 2005, when Egyptian smugglers helped a few hundred Africans sneak into Israel. The government arranged jobs for some, and as stories of their new lives spread, more came.

Just under half are from Eritrea, whose repressive government often detains returned asylum-seekers, according to Amnesty International. About one-third are from south Sudan and Darfur, whose conflicts have left millions dead and homeless, according to the U.N.

Under the U.N.'s Refugee Convention, all those claiming to be refugees should have their cases reviewed, said Sharon Harel of the U.N. refugee agency.

But the sudden influx outstripped the ability of the UNHCR and the government to process them, officials in both bodies said, resulting in stopgap policies that critics say make Israel inhospitable.

Those arriving now are detained for an average of five months — and some more than a year. They then receive release papers that must be renewed every three months but give them no right to work, though the government usually looks the other way when they take under-the-table jobs.

Simona Halperin of the Israeli Foreign Ministry said the government has a "full moral and legal commitment" to protecting refugees, but must distinguish them from economic migrants.

Asylum seekers from Sudan pose a unique problem, she said, because their mere entering Israel — which Sudan considers an "enemy state" — prevents their return.

Halperin said Israel won't deport anyone whose case has not been reviewed, and that Israel has 25 newly trained officers to interview asylum seekers. But they are starting with cases that are "easier to deal with," she said, meaning no Sudanese or Eritreans are being interviewed now. Their large number means it could be years before their status is determined, she said.

At the same time, Israel has pressed Egypt to do more to stop refugees from slipping in. Egypt has cracked down in recent years, arresting more than 1,300 would-be migrants and shooting more than 30 to death at the border in 2008, raising an outcry from human rights groups.

Perhaps no city better reflects the unstable position of Israel's asylum seekers than Arad, a remote, sun-baked city in eastern Israel near the Dead Sea.

Sudanese have flocked to the city in recent months, fleeing now-revoked regulations banning them from central Israel and the resort city of Eilat, where many worked in hotels.

About 1,500 now live in Arad, amounting to about six percent of its 23,000 residents. On a recent afternoon, scores of tall, black Sudanese could be seen walking through the town center, returning from work in Dead Sea resorts. None interacted with local residents.

Many residents want them gone, saying they take jobs from locals or drink downtown at night, sometimes fighting and harassing women.

Lilach Morgan of the Arad municipality said the Sudanese tax city services, and that the city gets no help from the national government whose policies pushed them to Arad.

"Nobody cares. Not one of the ministries came and said, 'I'm responsible for these people. We'll work together,'" she said.

Culture clashes are common between Jewish residents and the mostly Christian Sudanese population, most of whom speak no Hebrew.

Residents said the Sudanese hold loud church services on the Jewish Sabbath in a nursery next to a synagogue.

The windows of another nursery were shattered last month after a group of Sudanese held church services there on Saturday mornings, typically a time of quiet in Israeli towns.

"When I came here I was happy, but when I learned the Israelis don't like us, I was disappointed," said Puok Gach, one of the nursery's organizers.

Gach arrived in Israel by way of Egypt a few years after fighting pushed him from his south Sudanese village. He now lives with his wife and infant daughter in a small, rented apartment and works washing dishes at a Dead Sea hotel. He and his wife have to renew their papers every three months and worry they'll be sent elsewhere, he said.

Back at the Holocaust Memorial during the refugees' Aug. 3 visit, Saad el-Din viewed the exhibit of shoes from victims of the Majdanek death camp built by the Nazis during their occupation of Poland.

Saad el-Din said he's grateful for his new life in Israel. As one of 450 Darfur refugees granted the right to remain in Israel, he now has a job and an apartment, but realizes other refugees are less fortunate.

"I think the Israelis have the means to help out more," he said, suggesting the government give them longer permits or help them find work.

After addressing Saad el-Din's group, Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev said the Holocaust gives Israel a "moral commitment" to be sympathetic to refugees.

"We have to be creative enough to find human solutions to the situation right now, even temporarily," he said.

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