Israel and Protecting Refugees
by Arthur Lenk
Israel, like many other developed countries has a migrant problem. As in most European countries, poor people from near and far come to find work, opportunity and a better life. Israelis and Jews around the world identify with that aspiration and even sometimes, desperation. Most of us are only a generation removed from wandering, escaping and seeking refuge. That is why, over the years, Israel has consistently played a positive role in protecting groups and individuals during times of war, hunger and strife.
As a charter party to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, Israel has taken this responsibility seriously. It famously offered safety to Vietnamese boat people in 1977, to refugees from the war in Kosovo in 1999 and in recent years to hundreds of people from Ivory Coast, Liberia and Congo. These were groups who were protected in Israel during times of danger in their home countries. Often, when the conflict or danger passed, people were able to quietly return home. This Israeli humanitarian hospitality was offered in addition to the absorption, over the years, of Jewish refugees from dozens of countries from Iraq to Yemen to the former Soviet Union as full citizens.
In recent years, thousands of Sudanis and Eritrians have travelled, often by foot and often by paying large sums to human traffickers, through Egypt and across the Sinai desert into Israel. Thus far, at the request of the United Nations, Israel has allowed all to remain with none put at risk. This includes Muslims from Sudan, a country run by despots that call for Israel’s destruction, others from Darfur and Christians from newly independent South Sudan. Still others have left Eritrea, one of the most dark regimes in the world today.
In South Sudan, the situation has changed. While still not a developed country, it is now independent and for the most part safe. Like many other countries, Israel has determined, in consultation with both the office of UN High Commissioner for Refugees and with the local government, that the danger has passed and people, without specific individual refugee claims, can return home. That position was recently approved by an Israeli Court and will begin to be carried out in the coming weeks.
Today, Israel, a small state of just over seven million in one of the most sensitive regions in the world, continues to uphold its obligations both in accordance with international law and Israeli legislation. Not one individual has been deported so that he or she could be seen to have a well founded of persecution. Instead, Israel, in close cooperation with the UN, has been developing a process for reviewing individual cases and offers protection when needed.
All of this is not to say that Israel is perfect or has handled every situation perfectly. The dilemmas of protecting the rights of refugees in Israel while not encouraging thousands of others to join them are real. How to ensure the difficult balance, as is often faced in Europe, between the local community and the needs of the migrants, as done reasonably is an enormous challenge. For Israel, this remains a work in progress and it remains committed to acting responsibly and in accordance with international standards.
Over the years and on a wide range of topics from sending doctors to Haiti, rescue crews to Turkey and aiding agricultural development and fighting AIDS in Africa, Israel has seen itself as a serious and willing participant in the international community. The Jewish ideal of “tikun olam” is a real aspect of Israel’s foreign policy and its role as a constructive global partner. Facing the challenges of both protecting refugees and repatriating migrants when possible fits firmly within this view. We can be proud of our humanitarian achievements while ensuring that Israel continues to protect its citizens and those that seek safety in our country.
Arthur Lenk is Director of the Department of International Law at Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs