REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM--Israel doesn't need celebrity activists to call its attention to troubles in Africa. After years of being on the receiving end of a steady stream of work migrants and asylum seekers, the country knows this first-hand.
Civil war, tribal troubles and economic hardship in African countries have sent tens of thousands on the dangerous journey across the desert to try their luck in Israel, which they have entered through the country's sprawling, largely open border with Egypt.
In 2006, there were 300 asylum seekers from Sudan in Israel. By April 2011, Israel was the reluctant home to 35,000 asylum seekers, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, as well as a few thousand from the Ivory Coast and Congo. People hailing from Sudan and Eritrea received group protection from Israeli authorities, a status requiring renewal every few months.
A few years ago, Israel's Interior Ministry took over the Refugee Status Determination process (RSD) from the United Nation's refugee agency, UNHCR. Despite the review of thousands of cases, relatively few have been granted refugee status by Israel.
The asylum seekers are part of a larger issue for Israel. Between caretakers, nursing aides, construction workers and farm hands outstaying their work permits by years and settling in Israel, and the influx of African migrants infiltrating its southern border, the country has an uninvited foreign community estimated in the hundreds of thousands.
Israel's immigration policy is tangled up with religion, demographics and politics and years of Band-Aid solutions, resulting in a situation many in Israel consider a threat to security, society and economy.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government is expediting work on a fence along its border with Egypt, taking legal measures against employers and others assisting illegal immigrants and is constructing a large holding facility for infiltrators who enter illegally but cannot be sent back to strife-torn countries. Most Israelis agree on the need for a secure border, with the consensus growing since last year's revolution in Egypt. Other measures are widely criticized by rights organizations.
Israel was swift to recognize the new state of South Sudan in July 2011. Following the formation of the state, Israel ended collective protection for those from South Sudan and wants asylum seekers to leave the country. The window for voluntary departure and a $1,300 incentive closes March 31; those still in Israel would be deported after that.
Another group of about 2,000 people from the Ivory Coast may also face deportation after the sweeping protection ended last month.
Currently, the Israeli foreign ministry maintains South Sudan is safe to return to and, according to rights organizations, Israel intends to deport 700 people, among them 400 children. The United Nations has expressed grave concern over the current situation in South Sudan, still plagued by violence and hunger.
Orit Marom, of Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel, warn South Sudan is far from safe. A recent report by the research and information department of Israel's parliament also concluded South Sudan remains acutely dangerous and in fierce humanitarian crisis "yet the government of Israel thinks this is the right time to send them back," Marom told Israel radio.
According to Marom, most arrived in Israel between 2006 and 2008 and formed a community with families. Many had been on the road for years, some leaving as long as 20 years ago. The younger ones have never been in Sudan, she says.
Rights organizations are lobbying for a stay, high schoolers are rallying to keep their classmates, citizens have demonstrated in Tel Aviv and 400 prominent public figures have signed a letter to Netanyahu asking how a state in which most residents were once refugees could turn its back on refugees.
At least on one occasion, Israel returned a consenting group of asylum seekers to Sudan, with the discreet aid of a third party. This was before South Sudan gained independence.
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-- Batsheva Sobelman
Photo: South Sudanese refugees protest Israel's deportation policy in Tel Aviv on March 17. Credit: Oliver Weiken / EPA