African Refugees Pose a Dilemma for Israel

Unwanted arrivals draw sympathy but also concern about their growing numbers in the Jewish state.

A refugee from Sudan stands near an Israeli flag during a demonstration supporting refugee aid.

A refugee from Sudan stands near an Israeli flag during a demonstration supporting refugee aid.

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TEL AVIV—For the ragged people streaming out of Egypt—African refugees fleeing genocide, war, and persecution—Israel appears to be the Promised Land indeed. But in the eyes of Israel's government, mindful of the Jewish experience with persecution and genocide, these new arrivals pose a delicate problem and a potentially serious peril.

Refugees crossing the porous border into Israel started their journeys in Sudan, Eritrea, and other African countries. Since 2005, when they began trickling into Israel—the Middle East's most liberal and prosperous country—their numbers have grown to about 6,000. Between dozens and hundreds more arrive each week—more than 1,000 so far this year, many from Eritrea. Most have tragic stories like that of a former English teacher who fled Eritrea after his father was killed by government agents. "When I was in Sudan, I heard people were going to Israel," he says. "I didn't have the money to go anywhere else, so I wanted to come, too."

The 28-year-old teacher, a Christian like most of the refugees, says he paid smugglers to take him through Egypt to the Israeli border, where, ahead of the bullets of Egyptian border guards, he climbed the barbed-wire border fence, surrendered to Israeli soldiers, and soon was on his way to Tel Aviv. For weeks, he has been living with about 200 other African refugees in a squalid, overcrowded bomb shelter in a slum near the bus terminal. "I want asylum," he pleads. "I expect the Israeli government to do something to help me."

Police raids. But the Israeli government is not sure what to do. For legal, moral, and historical reasons, it has not deported the refugees to Egypt or their home countries, where they could face punishment from hostile authorities. At the same time, Israel is wary of being too hospitable to the newcomers; there are several million African refugees in Egypt and Sudan, and Israel really doesn't want to encourage them. Last week, a frustrated Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered authorities to "tighten supervision" of the border to bar "infiltrators," and he directed that those already here be "transferred to detention centers" or, if possible, deported. Subsequently, police conducted raids in the bus station area and arrested over 200 African refugees. A local U.N. official put this down to government "panic," predicting a quick return to the accepted policy of toleration.

The government in the past tried and abandoned such enforcement tactics. When the first Africans arrived, Israel jailed them for illegal entry, often for as long as a year. Court challenges and damning media coverage got them released; the government even arranged for them to work in hotels in the Red Sea resort town of Eilat. Only a few hundred were here at the time, mainly from Sudan. Protests likening Darfur refugees to Holocaust survivors led the government to grant temporary asylum to the 500 to 600 people in the country who fled Darfur.

That leaves about 5,500 African refugees and counting. Government and local U.N. officials say that until Israel can better seal its 135-mile border with Egypt, it cannot offer long-term solutions to the new arrivals as that would dramatically increase their number.

Because it guarantees a home to all the world's Jewish refugees, Israel holds that it cannot be expected to do the same for any of the world's non-Jewish ones. Nevertheless, the grimy slums around Tel Aviv's bus terminal, already an international enclave populated by tens of thousands of foreign laborers, have become a refugees' transit camp. In a few dimly lit, airless, impossibly overcrowded shelters, several hundred Africans languish until they find work and rent cheap rooms or until compatriots, often from a local church, take them in. At a shelter for women and children, which, unlike those for men, is light and clean with showers and a well-stocked kitchen, a 25-year-old pregnant Eritrean says she climbed over the border fence ahead of her husband. "I never saw him again. I don't know if he's alive," she weeps, her right eye swollen from cutting it on the fence's barbed wire.