This week, Israel began building a $372 million, 155-mile barrier, including electric fencing and surveillance technology, along its border with Egypt.
As other routes for African migrants (such as the sea route between Libya and Italy) have been blocked, the numbers of migrants crossing the border from Egypt has increased dramatically. In 2009, Israel reported just over 4,000 undocumented migrants; that number is up to over 10,000 so far this calendar year. While the Israeli government claims that the wall will prevent Islamic militants and human traffickers from reaching Israel, it will also significantly impair the ability of asylum seekers to reach Israel.
One might expect a nation of refugees for whom the UN Refugee Convention was created to have a generous policy towards those seeking protection within its borders. This new barrier, however, presents just one more instance of Israel's failures to live up to its responsibilities under the UN Refugee Convention.
Israel hosted just over 4,000 asylum seekers in 2009, most from Eritrea and Sudan, yet Israeli NGOs report that the country has granted asylum to fewer than 200 applicants since it ratified the UN Refugee Convention in 1954. As described further in this report by the Israeli NGO Refugees' Rights Forum, the asylum process in Israel is dysfunctional, often requiring a wait of over a year for an interview. Rather than legally recognizing refugees from Eritrea and Sudan -- nations to which the UNHCR forbids deportation because of the dangers facing those who return -- Israel instead grants most of them temporary protection, a much less stable status that does not permit them to work and allows the Israeli government to return them when the situation the refugees' home country improves.
Those who are less lucky are detained (currently, over 2000 asylum seekers) or worse. Under Israel's "Hot Return" policy, authorities expel undocumented migrants directly to Egypt without providing access to asylum procedures and without obtaining guarantees against refoulement from the Egyptian government. The U.S. State Department reports that Egyptian authorities detain some of these asylum seekers, holding them in conditions that violate international human rights standards, and refoules thousands of others back to Eritrea and Sudan.
Though Israel must take seriously threats to its national security, this nation of refugees does itself a disservice by building further barricades to protection for those fleeing persecution.