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MIDEAST: Israel Denies Healthcare to Refugees

Jillian Kestler-D’Amours

JAFFA, Jul 2 2011 (IPS) - Medication and pillboxes fill two white bookcases, lining the wall behind a volunteer Israeli doctor. He talks to a patient in Hebrew about the man’s medical condition, as another man is examined behind a curtain that divides the small office. In the next room, at least 40 people – mainly of Eritrean and Sudanese origin – sit quietly on plastic chairs, waiting for their turn to be seen.

Refugees at a clinic run by volunteers. Credit: Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/IPS.

Refugees at a clinic run by volunteers. Credit: Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/IPS.

This is one of only two open clinics that treat refugees and asylum seekers in Israel who, without medical insurance or access to non-emergency services, have virtually no other options to receive medical care.

“Basically what we have is a group of people who are here, they are living here now, Israel recognised them as able to live here, but that’s it,” explained Shahar Shosham, the Project Director of the Migrant Workers, Refugees and Asylum Seekers Project at Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-I), which runs the clinic in Jaffa.

“They are getting a protection from deportation, and that’s it. They don’t have any access to health services. They don’t have any access to welfare services,” Shosham told IPS.

The Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel (ASSAF) estimates that there are presently 35,000 refugees living in Israel. Many fled civil wars, genocide or military dictatorships in countries like Eritrea and Sudan, among others. The majority of the African refugees in Israel arrive via Egypt, having been smuggled into the country through Sinai at great personal risk to themselves and their children.

It has been widely documented that by the time many African refugees enter Israel, they have been tortured, sexually assaulted and even held for large ransoms by the traffickers. But the problems don’t end once they cross the border.

Thousands of refugees and asylum seekers living in Israel are without access to medical treatment and medical insurance. While they have the right to be admitted to Israeli hospitals in emergency situations, they cannot receive follow-ups or treatment for psychological problems or long-term medical conditions such as cancer or HIV/AIDS.

“Refugees can be accepted to hospitals but they will stay there only until they will be stable, (then) they will be release with a debt to the hospital. A stable situation can be if you broke your arm, you will have a cast. But then you won’t be able to go back to the hospital to do a follow-up or take off the cast because it’s not an emergency situation any more,” Shosham said.

Shosham explained that the PHR-I clinic, set up in 1998, offers medical services without an appointment three days a week, and handles approximately 40 patients daily for a total of around 700 each month. The clinic struggles to meet the demand, she said, and a drastic change in Israeli policy is needed to provide refugees with the medical care they need.

“There are people living now here with no health rights and no welfare access and what we are saying is that the government should grant them social residency. By social residency, we’re saying to separate between the question of granting status and the access to the health system and the welfare system,” Shosham said.

This is exactly what a group of about a dozen Israeli students demanded in early June, during a demonstration in front of the Jerusalem office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also serves as the Health Minister.

“We are asking to apply the law of national health insurance on asylum seekers,” Yael Goren, a 25-year- old social work student from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, told IPS during the demonstration.

Wearing clear bubble wrap to illustrate the idea that refugees are invisible people in Israel and that “no one can see them (and) no one can hear their voice,” Goren explained that Israeli society is largely fearful of refugees and asylum seekers.

“First, (Israelis say that it’s) a demographic threat. They are afraid that if we give them rights, thousands of people will come and want to get to Israel. The second (thing) is that people are afraid because they’re different from us. People are afraid of something that is different,” Goren said.

“We were refugees,” she added, “and now we’re closing our doors.”

Since large numbers of African refugees and asylum seekers began coming into the country, Israeli politicians have routinely vilified them as “infiltrators”, saying they bring in diseases, are a danger to Jewish women and girls, and most importantly, threaten the “Jewish and democratic” nature of the state.

“The infiltrators conquered Eilat and Arad, and they are conquering Tel Aviv from north to south. Only a small amount are actually refugees. A stream of refugees threaten to wash away our achievements and harm our existence as a Jewish and democratic state,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in January 2011.

To counter this supposed threat, the Israeli government has begun building a fence along its southern border with Egypt and is planning what many call an open-air prison in the Negev desert in which to hold asylum seekers and refugees before they can be deported back to their country of origin.

According to Shahar Shosham, the Israeli government’s official stance towards refugees and asylum seekers reflects the state’s deteriorating struggle to maintain a Jewish majority at all costs.

“Israel is doing whatever it can so it will keep a Jewish majority and Israel is very afraid of the stranger, the other, that is not Jewish. It shows in the discussion. It shows in the legislation. It shows actually also in the policy towards them and in practical actions that it’s doing.”

 
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