Israel said Wednesday that it would grant citizenship to several hundred refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan, following a burgeoning debate over how to handle the influx of refugees from the war-torn African nation into Israel.
Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit said he would work with the United Nations to set a quota for granting citizenship to Darfurian refugees in Israel, who number between 300 and 500.
"Israel, with its history, must offer assistance," Mr. Sheetrit told a gathering of activists in Petach Tikva, near Tel Aviv. "It can't stand by and shut its eyes. But a quota must be set."
Advocacy groups say that up to 1,700 refugees and economic migrants from Sudan are now in Israel – about 1,200 of whom have come in during the past six months alone across the loosely guarded border between Egypt and Israel.
Israel's decision was met with praise from groups that have come to the aid of the refugees. But most expressed concern that the decision was limited to those from Darfur, and that Israel was not examining all its applicants for refugee status individually.
"We commend this decision and we're very glad that someone who, a year ago, was considered an infiltrator from an enemy country will now be treated like a regular immigrant coming from abroad," says Romm Lewkowicz, the spokesman for the Hotline for Migrant Workers, one of the foremost Israeli groups aiding the Sudanese refugees. Sudan's Islamic government remains hostile toward Israel.
"But we don't think that these decisions should be based on the goodwill of this minister or that," he says. "Israel should evaluate on a case-by-case basis, in line with international refugee conventions that Israel has signed. We still have an article of law saying Israel won't check individual cases of any refugee or migrant coming from an enemy country, and so long as this still holds, we haven't achieved our main goals."
Israeli policy toward the refugees so far has been multifaceted and ad hoc. Some of the refugees here from Sudan are being held in various jails for lack of other facilities in which to house them. Others have been taken in by various kibbutzim and families. While most Sudanese and others fleeing Africa have been permitted to stay, Israeli officials have indicated they will start pursuing a policy of "hot return," in which Israel's border guards force asylum-seekers back into Egyptian territory.
Israelis have complained about the use of that policy, as well as the possibility of future deportations of Sudanese refugees. In Israel, a nation of many refugees, the Sudanese issue has generated much concern, but many also worry about being overwhelmed by African migrants who may not be fleeing imminent danger, as they have already gained refuge in Egypt.
The range of political responses indicate the divided feelings over the issue. Several prominent members of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, signed a petition demanding that Darfurians not be deported. But Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has instructed his minister of Internal Security to work on building a more serious fence or barrier to keep infiltrators out. Currently, several parts of the border are guarded with coils of barbed wire that have proved to be fairly easy to overcome.
Groups also worried that Wednesday's decision was a signal that the Israeli government would make a distinction between refugees from Darfur and other Sudanese.
"This is the right humanitarian decisions and it's the right Jewish decision, but we urge the government to go the extra mile and to offer citizenship to all the Sudanese refugees in Israel, since Darfuris are only about a third of them," says Eitan Schwartz, of the Coalition for the Advancement of Refugees from Darfur (CARD). "The government sees the people from south Sudan as economic migrants rather than genocide survivors."
The last time Israel offered a group of refugees citizenship en masse was during the leadership of Menachem Begin, who granted citizenship to a group of about 400 Vietnamese "boat people" fleeing the war in 1977.