On Saturday, the Egyptians shot a 7-year-old girl from Sudan who tried to cross the border from Egypt to Israel just south of Rafah. Had she and her family made it through, they would have surely landed in Ketziot Prison. The "new policy" that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's cabinet declared vis-a-vis asylum seekers is, in fact, cruelty by any other name.
The anti-infiltration law that the government is promoting has not yet been put on the law books, and it remains doubtful whether the Knesset would approve it in its stringent form. But its message is loud and clear. After nearly 10,000 Africans crossed over to Israel from Egypt last year, the authorities want to signal to anyone planning on coming here that their lives are not going to be easy.
As far as Israel is concerned, the refugees can either get killed in their country of origin or at the Egyptian border, or be arrested indefinitely or wait for the Knesset to pass a law stating they will be tried and imprisoned for five to seven years. And it is the asylum seekers from Sudan, where a savage war has claimed the lives of 2 million people, who can expect to receive the harshest sentences under the new law. That's because Sudan is defined as an enemy state.
Unlike Israel's policy toward other illegal immigrants - those who forget to leave after arriving here as tourists or with a temporary work permit - sending the African asylum seekers back could mean a death sentence. This issue is about saving lives in the simplest meaning of the phrase - at least in the case of the Darfur refugees, who constitute 25 percent of the people who arrive at our borders.
The difference between job seekers and asylum seekers isn't always clear. To determine which is which, we have the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Those who are defined as refugees should be afforded protection from deportation and legal status. In Israel, merely being processed for recognition as an asylum seeker is difficult because of the long queue - which the government needs to shorten before it does anything else. That would be the first meaningful step.
The whole world is facing immigration problems, and a closed-gate policy is always cruel. At a time when the European Union is considering issuing a "Blue Card" for desirable immigrants like the American Green Card, it is, in fact, barring all the undesirables from entering. The distinction between job seekers and refugees is essential and humane, and it stems from our experience and commitment as the offspring of refugees who knocked in vain on the world's door, to be delivered by no one. We cannot evade our responsibility for the refugees, and other countries do not evade theirs. Nor can we solve the refugee problem by giving the Egyptians a wink to do our dirty work for us. Refugees from Darfur need to find a home here.
Too soon we have forgotten the suffering that is the lot of the persecuted. Perhaps we have grown accustomed to concern ourselves only with our own plight after absorbing Jewish refugees since the founding of the state. Today, when we are more prosperous, when the reservoir of Jewish refugees has dried up, there is fortunately no reason to scan the globe for people who could be considered Jewish and coax them to come here. And there is no reason to remain indifferent to the suffering of non-Jews who could contribute to the State of Israel as much as any Jew.
Darfur and its refugees are like an alarm bell for the collective conscience, and that bell is supposed to ring also when non-Jews are suffering.
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