The plight of Sudan and its over five million refugees has been well publicized over the last few years. Sudanese, as well as refugees from other countries in the unsettled region, such as Eritrea and The Ivory Coast, have no safe-haven to turn to. Desperate to escape civil war and the genocide in their homeland, many Sudanese and other African refugees fled to Egypt over the last few years. Unfortunately, circumstances barely improved, and some began crossing into Israel, which many consider to be the only democratic country in the region.
Since 2005 the number of irregular migrants entering Israel via the Egyptian border has risen dramatically. According to the UNHCR, the number of asylum seekers residing in Israel has grown from 365 in 1999 to 4,409 in 2000 and to an estimated 65,000 today. Eighty-five percent of them have fled Eritrea or Sudan. The situation of asylum seekers in Israel is far from rosy: Upon arrival, they are usually arrested and imprisoned. Unable to deport the migrants to their countries of origin the Israeli authorities eventually release them, equipped with temporary visa that grant group-based temporary protection from deportation, but no access to social and health rights and, in practice, also no permission to work. As a result many asylum seekers find themselves literally on the street without any means of support. Most settle in already poor urban areas; homelessness is widespread.
The Israeli government’s only policies regarding irregular migration are border fortification and imprisonment, as illustrated by constructing a fence along the Egyptian border and a prison facility that was meant to hold 10,000 persons. On Jan 11th 2012 the Israeli Knesset passed the amended ‘Infiltrator Law’, whose declared purpose is to deter irregular migrants from entering the country. The law enables draconian measures, such as a three-year imprisonment without trial.
The effects of such policies on the health and well-being of asylum seekers are devastating: Keeping asylum seekers in constant limbo and limiting their resources for coping and resilience, they do not allow for recovery from the severe physical and psycho-social trauma many asylum seekers have suffered as a result from violent conflict, torture, and rape. The current policies maintain asylum seekers’ and irregular migrants’ exclusion from the public healthcare scheme. They are thus denied access to comprehensive and adequate medical care. Most irregular migrants rely on NGO-run humanitarian health services, such as the Physicians for Human Rights’ “Open Clinic”. However, NGOs often lack the capacities to respond to these populations’ healthcare needs.
The Sudanese and Eritreans are not dealt with as people, but rather as an inconvenient and threatening situation, jeopardizing Israel’s nationalist principles. It is a sad irony indeed that the Israeli state, established as a safe haven by and for Jewish refugees, uses this very logic in order to reject responsibility for persons who seek shelter from oppression, persecution and violent conflict, and disregards its obligation to the UN.