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Taking in refugees – moral principle or national suicide?



Geoff Sifrin


South Africa has never faced such a crisis. For most of the past several decades, people were wanting to leave, more than wanting to come here; we were the pariah nation of apartheid, not a “safe haven” as Europe is perceived. What would South Africa do today if a torrent of asylum-seekers arrived at our borders?

Our experience of the recent past, with outbreaks of xenophobia and violence against foreign migrants – who are actually not refugees, but “economic migrants” coming here from Zimbabwe, Malawi and other countries to seek a better life – is not a happy one. Our politicians’ slogans about us always being willing to help “fellow Africans” has never been properly tested. 

The heartrending image recently on the Internet of a drowned young Syrian boy – the child of a refugee family trying to reach safety – lying face down on a European beach, shocked the world. European countries have been criticised for not opening their borders. The crisis is reviving the old European borders as countries which lock their gates and anti-immigrant parties rise in power.

Analysts say that according to the dry numbers, the refugee influx is not a demographic or economic threat to Europe. The EU’s population is 500 million, and if all 28 EU member countries met their pledges, they would be taking in an average of 80 000 refugees a month – only 0,015 per cent of the EU’s population. Economically, absorbing a million refugees in the EU countries would require some €50 billion – 1 per cent of the EU’s annual product of €19 trillion.

But the political ramifications are very real. Populist parties have created the perception that there is an overwhelming wave of refugees knocking at Europe’s gates, in which it will drown if it doesn’t lock them out.

What about Israel? It is a Middle Eastern country surrounded by the horrendous events playing out in that region. Can it help in any way? The Syrian civil war alone has killed 300 000 people, and driven millions from the country.
Jordan has taken in 700 000 refugees, Lebanon has accepted some 1,5 million. Small countries like these could rapidly be overwhelmed if they totally opened their gates. What if hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees arrived at Israel’s border in the Golan Heights? Israel is too small to take them in. The demographic threat is real; the need to preserve its identity as a Jewish state and a democracy doesn’t allow it.

There is already a fierce debate in Israel regarding some 55 000 illegal immigrants from African countries like Eritrea and Sudan. The UN Refugee Agency has declared Eritrea a country in humanitarian crisis; the Darfur region in western Sudan has seen a genocide taking place; and South Sudan’s civil war between Arab Muslim inhabitants, and the Christian and animist inhabitants, is adding to the refugee predicament.

Over the past decade, these illegal immigrants from Africa have entered Israel mainly from Egypt through the fenced border. Once in Israel, they have sought refugee status.
Israelis are conflicted about how to deal with them. Some say the Jewish state, whose people know well what it is to be a helpless refugee, cannot in all conscience turn them away. Others argue that to legitimise their status will be opening the floodgates for many more to come, and threatening Israel’s identity.
Although they entered Israel from Egypt, Israel cannot deport them back to that country because the Egyptians refuse to give an undertaking not to deport them to their countries of origin.

In 1977, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin took in a small number of Vietnamese refugees – the “boat people” who were fleeing the communist takeover of their homeland on small, leaky boats. An Israeli ship initially picked up 66 people at sea who were without food and water. Eventually nearly 300 Vietnamese refugees found safe haven in Israel. But it was a symbolic gesture which did not jeopardise Israel demographically.

Israel must seek other ways to help, if it can. There is no easy answer, either for Europe or for Israel.


Geoff Sifrin is former editor of the SAJR. He writes this column in his personal capacity.



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  1. Gary Selikow

    Sep 17, 2015 at 9:23 am

    ‘I oppose the invasion of Europe by the Muslim migrants.These refugees are a threat to Western civilization and as Muslims do in Europe mass gang rape women and girls in these countries.
    \nAs far as the UK goes I can certainly say the following : the NHS cannot afford cancer drugs for people who are dying, ex-servicemen are being kicked out of council houses. These people demand sharia law and try change Britain’s way of life, they attack and rape British womnen and children. You creating a big problem, and a bad image for Jews, by supporting this invasion Britain overall has been good to us as Jews, do we want to repay them by supporting this invasion that will destroy Britain and displace its
    \nnative population British Jews need to be in touch with majority opinion
    \nand to respect the host population of the UK Julie Burchill makes the very important and true point that it is easy for the middle and upperclasses not affected negatively by immigration to condemn the working classes who suffer as a result of it: \”That the working class might have a thoroughly legitimate reason for becoming more agitated about
    \nimmigration that the tolerant middle class with their health insurance,private schools and comfy cars is never considered by these usually oh so caring people\” for crying out loud this ‘refugee’ invasion is bringing a rtpe epidemic with it and a girls school in Germany was told its girls must dress ‘modestly’ in case asylum seekers nearby were ‘ofended”

  2. Choni

    Sep 20, 2015 at 1:30 pm

    ‘For those who advocate a two state solution, let them contemplate the influx of millions of refugees from Syria that the ‘new’ state of Palestine would absorb, and its effect on Israel.’

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