A Problem Not Worth Repressing

From the moment the African refugees arrive here they are our problem, responsibility and test of humanity.

In the shadow of the revolution in Gaza, the presidential election and the Labor Party primary, Israel is doing everything possible to repress a national crisis that is knocking at its gate: the wave of refugees and migrant workers that has arrived here via Egypt over the past few months. Prior to the beginning of this year, there were only a few hundred. But in the past month and a half, almost 1,000 refugees have arrived, only half of them from Sudan. The remainder are from Ivory Coast and Eritrea. In other words, we are talking about a rate of thousands of refugees per year. But if no solution is found to the problem, the rate will soon increase and reach tens of thousands. International Refugee Day, which is being marked today, is an excellent chance to stop repressing the issue.

Haaretz's Mijal Grinberg has reported on how the Israel Defense Forces abandoned refugees in the street and called in a social work student to take care of them. The truth is that this is logical. How can a country that cannot manage to take care of its own displaced persons during wartime, and allows a tycoon to do so in its stead, be expected to deal with a genuine refugee problem? Perhaps we should propose that Arcadi Gaydamak intervene, since helping foreigners is also part of the "Jewish tradition"?

Granted, there are also positive developments. First, no one is thinking of using weapons against the refugees, and there were only a few attempts to force them to return to where they came. But it turns out that neither the police nor the army believes that it is its job to deal with the refugee problem. Therefore, the only ones trying to take care of the refugees are several organizations with shoestring budgets. And even these organizations' indefatigable volunteers will have difficulty welcoming several thousand refugees into their living rooms.

In Israel, people are always talking about expectations that the West will absorb most of the refugees. But it seems the time has come to reconcile ourselves to the fact that the Western world has sufficient refugees for everyone, and no one will volunteer to take our refugees off our hands.

Though this may sound ironic, the refugee problem is one of the fruits of peace. If Africa and Israel were still separated by mine fields and army divisions, Israel would have many problems - but the danger of being flooded by refugees would not be one of them. We cannot expect the Egyptians to stem the flow of refugees through Sinai. At the end of the day, what do they care if some of their problem is transferred to us?

It is permissible for Israel to try to keep the refugees from entering, especially after so many have already arrived. It might be possible to do so by installing an electronic fence. But given the pace at which such decisions are made in Israel, by the time we build a fence of this sort, another several thousand refugees will have arrived. And if the rate increases, there will be tens of thousands. Israel must decide whether to start building a fence within a few days. And if it indeed decides to do so, the decision must be implemented within a few months.

From the moment the refugees arrive here, however, they are our problem, responsibility and test of humanity. Will we be wise enough to treat them fairly and at the same time protect ourselves? Sending the refugees to hotels in Eilat was a very humane step. But it turns out that the information is passed on quickly, and for every refugee who is employed in a five-star hotel here, thousands more want to come.

It is possible that the solution is to establish an absorption camp - under no circumstances a detention facility - in which the refugees would live during the first months of their stay. In other words, Israel would treat them fairly, but would not encourage them to come. In the second stage, anyone whose life turns out to be in danger in his country of origin, and not merely the official refugees, must be granted a work permit out of the quota for foreign workers. It is reasonable to expect that further steps will be required as well. What is clear is that this problem must be put at the top of the national agenda, and quickly, before it turns from a problem into a fiasco.