Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Hellishly "Hot Returns"

For years, Refugees from the Sudan and other points in Africa have been trying to cross into Israel as refugees, mostly across the Egyptian border. Egyptian soldiers generally try to shoot anyone fleeing across the Egypt-Israeli border and arrest and detain those they capture. This eye-opening letter published in Ha'aretz explains the challenges these refugees face not only in Egypt, but also in Israel which, though it does not shoot at refugees, is not exactly stellar in its official treatment of them.

Of particular concern is a practice known as "hot returns." Basically, a "hot return" is when a person is caught trying to cross the border and is then immediately returned to the country from which they have just left. In effect, it means a person is not given full opportunity to demonstrate whether or not they deserve to be protected as a refugee and walks a very fine line between being able to protect sovereign borders and determine who can and cannot enter the country and violating the principle of non-refoulment which says that a person must never be returned to a country where they could face (amongst other things) death or torture.

Israeli civil rights and refugee rights groups have been actively advocating against the "hot return" policy. This has included (failed) injunctions before Israeli courts and letter writing campaigns to the President of Israel, specifically in response to the return of over 40 refugees to Egypt (some of whom were abused while in Egyptian custody) and protests. Israeli policy is to interview all "infiltrators" (as those who cross the border are called) within three hours of their crossing of the border during which time individuals may choose to declare themselves to be refugees (if they know to do this.) It's unclear exactly what these interviews consist of. In the judge's decision denying an injunction against "hot returns," the fact that, during their interviews, none of the people returned to Egypt claimed that they were refugees was grounds to deny their entry. An argument that, on the face of it, seems to deny these people the proper forums and procedures to demonstrate their status as refugees.

As the letter in Ha'aretz points out, and as elaborated on the author's blog, refugees who are lucky enough not to be returned to Israel have a hard time finding work and making a life for themselves. This being said, documentation (really interesting, by the way) by Human Rights groups in Israel show that some improvements have been made in the asylum process in Israel since 2002, but these changes fall short of sufficient. So long as those who make it to Israel alive face the possibility of being returned to Egypt, where they may face imprisonment or torture, or even be returned to the Sudan where they may face death, something has to change. So long as cases like this one, where documented asylum seekers in Israel were told they needed to wait for their hearings in jail, continue to occur, something needs to change.

There are refugees from Darfur who live in Israel, who are learning English and Hebrew, and who intend to build lives for themselves in Israel. There are also over 7,000 asylum seekers who do successful cross into Israel. This does not, however, excuse turning back, at the border, those who may face untold dangers to life and limb without due process. Travelling in Israel it was encouraging to meet teachers of some of these refugees from Darfur and to see that something, officially or unofficially, was being done to help them. Reading the accounts from refugees and human rights activists about the hardships faced and this difficult to justify and illegal "hot return" policy, however, was eye-opening and unsettling.

The situation is far more complex than this short post indicates. It touches on questions of international law and human rights which alone could be the subject of a volume. What should be taken away is that Israel is in a position to assist hundreds if not thousands of people fleeing war and genocide and does not seem to be doing all it can. Those who make it into the country face obstacles above and beyond what an ordinary immigrant may face, those stopped at the border face a violation of their rights. Anyone interested in this matter should take the time to look through the links in this post. There is a great deal of interesting information available on the subject.

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