Sunday 7 March 2010

How Can Israel Absorb so Many Refugees?

"Israel cannot allow every person who
wants to come here to leave Africa and
enter. But at the same time, we
cannot forget our commitment and
obligation to human rights."
- Tomer Warsha.

Since the year 2000, African refugees have been streaming over Israel's border with Egypt. The refugees, who come from Sudan (including war-torn Darfur), Eritrea and Ethiopia are estimated to number between 15,000 and 20,000 in Israel.

Most of the refugees have made their way from their countries of origin by foot across some of the world's most inhospitable terrain. They have come across the Sinai desert through Egypt, and have survived against incredible odds. Not only did they need to survive the wrath of the desert, lack of food and water and exposure to the elements, they also had to cross war zones and international boundaries at significant personal risk. More than a few refugees were shot by the Egyptian authorities when trying go find their way across Egypt. Many horror stories have been told about the way in which men, women and children have been killed in cold blood after succeeding to escape from the war raging in their home country. Equally, many happy stories have been told by refugees who celebrated upon reaching Israeli sovereign territory. Even though few refugees come equipped with laptops, mobile phones or GPS navigation equipment, somehow word has managed reach far-flung parts of Africa that Israel is a safe landing point for refugees.

Israel is a safe landing point for refugees because there are few nations in the world who understand the plight of these refugees better than the Israelis. There are few who understand what human beings are forced to experience when they are hunted down only because they happen to belong to a certain religion, creed or nation. While they are hunted down, those in the world who can put a stop to this murderous behaviour simply stand and watch. And when those who are being pursued managed to escape from the horrors of the war which seeks to kill them, no nation in the world will give them an alternative home. Despite the world pledging that this will never happen again, it is indeed happening again. Thankfully, there are few who know this feeling. Unfortunately, too many Israelis understand this from personal experience. It is undoubtedly fitting that, as a nation, Israel has opened its frontier and its hearts to these refugees.

People have rallied around to provide shelter for the refugees, no matter how basic. Food and clothing has been collected and donated. Jobs have been found to allow them to regain some of their dignity, and to allow them to begin caring for themselves. Places in local kindergartens and schools have been found for their children, no matter how different the environment is from their natural habitat. Volunteers have been working hard to bring the families some fun activities to give them something to smile about. A heart-warming newspaper article was carried recently showing activities provided to refugee children to coincide with the Jewish holiday of Purim. I felt a great deal of pride that in 62 short years, we have picked ourselves up from being a helpless and persecuted people, to a being a nation that is able to help those that are helpless and persecuted.

But how much can a country the size of Israel be expected to do for these people? And how many more will we be able to absorb? With a population of only 6 million people, and with a country smaller than many of the states of the USA, it is impossible to simply absorb all who knock on Israel's door without limit. Too many native Israelis live under the poverty line and require help from the state and the welfare organisations. This leaves few resources to provide to the likes of the Sudanese refugees who have nowhere else to go. Despite this fact, the refugees are finding a safe and nurturing environment to be able to rebuild their lives. Many of the hotels who have employed the refugees talk about how wonderful the Sudanese are to have as employees. They are happy and dedicated to their jobs. It shows how far a little dignity can go.

To me, it seems as if the western world is too occupied with "greater" things which cause it to lose sight of some of the small, but vitally important issues. Helping a person who has been displaced by war and has nowhere in the world to go must surely rank high on the list of priorities. If not, the world has really lost its way, and the lessons of the holocaust have surely not been learned.

In a way, the dilemma that Israel faces with regard to how to treat the refugees is a good dilemma to have to confront. It is good because it reinforces the fact that we are independent and in a state of our own, and now we have the ability and the obligation to help others. I am convinced that the 6 million people who were exterminated at the hands of the Nazis would have exchanged their situation for our "problem" in a heartbeat.

Although Israel finds itself in a difficult situation, we have the obligation to do for these people what the world did not do for ours.

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