When Olmert announced in late June that, henceforth, African migrants who infiltrated from Egypt would be sent back there, he explicitly declared that refugees from Darfur, but only Darfur, would be exempted from this policy. That enraged people such as Jerusalem Post columnist Larry Derfner, who argued that Israel should also take in other Africans, like the southern Sudanese.
Yet, in fact, the policy as stated made an eminently proper distinction between refugees in genuine need of asylum and economic migrants. The genocide in Darfur, which has thus far killed anywhere from 200,000 to 400,000 people (estimates vary widely) and displaced more than 2 million, shows no signs of abating; Darfurians cannot safely return to their own country and are thus textbook examples of genuine refugees.
In contrast, the civil war between northern and southern Sudan ended in January 2005, and refugees have since been returning to the south: According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, some 157,000 southern Sudanese refugees have thus far been voluntarily repatriated, and there have been no reports of them suffering violence or persecution.
CERTAINLY, the southern Sudanese suffered terribly during the 22-year civil war, which killed some two million people; one can therefore understand why many fear that the fragile peace will not hold, or are reluctant to return to devastated villages. But the fact remains that, so far, the peace has held and refugees are being successfully repatriated. Thus there are no grounds for viewing the southern Sudanese as genuine asylum-seekers.
Given that Israel’s capacity to absorb refugees is not unlimited, anyone who truly cares about human rights should support a policy of reserving this capacity for those in genuine need, like the Darfurians, rather than squandering it on those, like the southern Sudanese, who have the option of returning home.
Granted, Israel is nowhere near the limits of its absorption capacity now, but the pace of infiltrations has recently increased dramatically, from several dozen a month to several dozen a day; at this rate, some 15,000 Africans would enter from Egypt every year. Thus if Israel does not start making distinctions now, it is liable to find itself turning away genuine refugees later because it has already absorbed too many non-refugees – and once accepted, these non-refugees cannot then be forced to leave.
OLMERT’S DECLARED policy of accepting Darfurians only therefore made sense. There was only one problem: It turns out that he did not mean a word of it. On Sunday, Israel returned its first 48 infiltrators to Egypt. And according to the IDF, most were Darfurians.
Then, in response to the outcry by local human rights organizations, Olmert’s office explained that his pledge to accept Darfur refugees applied only to the approximately 500 who were already here. All new arrivals from Darfur would be promptly returned to Egypt.
This is unconscionable by any standard.
First, the Darfurians are indisputably genuine refugees. Second, there are serious reasons to doubt their safety in Egypt. Not only did IDF cameras film Egyptian security forces gunning down Sudanese migrants near the border earlier this month, there have been persistent reports about Egypt deporting Darfurians back to Sudan, where they are clearly in danger. Just this Sunday, for instance, Egyptian police told the Associated Press that the Darfurians Israel expelled would be returned to Sudan.
THIRD, WHILE reasonable people can certainly disagree about where the limit of our refugee absorption capacity lies, no reasonable person could set it at a measly 500 people, as Olmert has. Israel employs some 100,000 legal foreign workers and at least about another 100,000 illegals; many of these workers also have spouses and children. Thus it could clearly absorb tens of thousands of refugees just by using them as replacements for foreign workers.
Granted, not every foreign worker could be replaced with a refugee; some have specialized skills that the refugees lack. But there are 29,000 legal foreign workers in agriculture alone; these could certainly be replaced with Darfurians, most of whom were farmers back in Sudan. A pilot program to employ Sudanese refugees in Eilat hotels also proved successful; refugees could thus replace foreign workers in other hotels as well.
Kicking out foreign workers to make room for refugees is not cost-free: Most foreign workers come from friendly countries such as Thailand and the Philippines, and expelling them would clearly strain these bilateral relationships. That is not something the government should do lightly, which is another reason why a “genuine refugees only” policy makes sense. Expelling economic migrants from friendly countries merely to absorb economic migrants from hostile countries, such as the southern Sudanese, would be sheer insanity.
But deporting genuine refugees to Egypt might well have even worse diplomatic consequences: Such callousness tarnishes the country’s image throughout the democratic world, and also among the international Jewish community, which, to its credit, has been at the forefront of efforts to help the Darfur refugees.
EVEN WERE there no pragmatic arguments in favor of absorbing refugees, the Jewish state – homeland of a people that knows only too well what it is like to flee genocide and find every door closed – cannot ignore the moral imperative of saving lives. But the fact that this is one of those rare occasions when self-interest and morality go hand in hand makes Olmert’s decision to absorb a mere 500 Darfurians doubly unconscionable.
Fortunately, other Israelis seem to understand this. Just three weeks ago, for instance, a resolution demanding that Darfurians not be deported received rare across-the-board support in the Knesset. It was signed by 63 MKs, an absolute majority, representing every political party in the legislature. Thus there are grounds for hope that public pressure could force Olmert to reverse his disgraceful decision.
However, that will only happen if such pressure is applied strongly and consistently. The 63 MKs who signed the petition must now prove that they stand behind their words, and start turning up the heat.