THOUSANDS OF Eritrean asylum seekers faced with deportation were thrown a lifeline when an Israeli appeals court ruled in mid-February that Eritreans who fled forced military service are now eligible for refugee status. Eritrean army deserters are believed to make up over half of the 28,000 Eritreans currently living in Israel, who were previously denied asylum, and the court ruling means many will now submit new requests to be allowed to remain in Israel.
Population and Immigration Authority officials in early February began handing out letters to Eritrean and Sudanese nationals, offering them to leave Israel voluntarily within 60 days in exchange for a $3,500 grant and a plane ticket, as the first phase in the government’s newly devised policy to reduce the number of African asylum seekers in Israel.
The government’s new policy, which has been criticized
in public petitions and letters signed by groups of doctors, rabbis, artists, pilots, former diplomats and Holocaust survivors, was also deemed illegal by a group of 25 prominent Israeli experts on international law.
However, the government, which believes the vast majority of those who entered across the Egyptian Sinai border are economic migrants rather than genuine refugees, vowed to press ahead with the planned deportations, beginning in April.
There are about 37,800 asylum seekers (not including children born in Israel) who entered via Egypt, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, and are therefore regarded as “infiltrators” by the government. Initially, only single men will be earmarked for deportation and the government has not declared if the campaign will be extended eventually to fathers, women and children.
Detained Africans will be given a choice of leaving for a “third country,” believed to be Rwanda or Uganda, or going to jail indefinitely.
The prominent lawyers who asked Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to reconsider the deportation decision argued that the deportation procedure violates international human rights laws, refugee laws and the principle of non-return, which forbids deporting an individual to a country in which he might face persecution, torture or inhumane and humiliating treatment.
The legal experts claimed that the state had not properly dealt with the requests for refugee status that were submitted by the infiltrators and instead automatically rejected almost all requests that were submitted by citizens of Eritrea and Sudan.
The figures tend to support these claims. Whereas in Europe more than 90 percent of Eritreans were granted asylum last year, in Israel out of more than 13,000 applications submitted since 2013, only 11 were granted refugee status.
In response to the threatened deportation, a group of rabbis set up an organization called Miklat Yisrael (Israel Shelter) or the Anne Frank Home Sanctuary Movement, dedicated to hiding Africans threatened with expulsion
. Hundreds of Israeli families have signed up, offering rooms in their homes if and when the roundup begins.
Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman, a Jerusalem- based activist, and sister of the comedian Sarah Silverman, was one of the initiators of the campaign.
“I came to live in Israel because I believe the Jewish people have something to offer, a moral vision. If we’re not going to live up to our values, then there’s no reason to have a Jewish state.”
BUT DESPITE the prominence of the various campaigns against the deportations, a majority of the Israeli public back the government decision. A poll
in early February by the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute, found that two out of every three Israelis either “strongly supports” (45 percent) or “moderately supports” (21 percent) the government deportation plan.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the protests against the deportations as “a campaign of lies.”
“International law places obligations on countries and it also gives them rights. There is an obligation to accept refugees, and we accept refugees,” he said, “but international law also gives the right to a country to remove from its borders illegal migrants. We have no obligation to allow illegal labor migrants who are not refugees to remain here.”
One of the factors explaining the public support for the government policy is that the majority of asylum seekers are concentrated in a couple of poor neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv and, according to veteran residents in the area, have made it unsafe to go out on the streets.
Christina, who came from the Philippines 10 years ago, said no Israelis will dare visit the Neve Sha’anan neighborhood after dark.
“They touched me on my private areas and my family were beaten. The police made arrests but released the suspects after 2 weeks. It’s shocking to see this. The police cannot do anything. The Filipinos are an easy target because we don’t complain and we don’t have bank accounts and we therefore carry cash.”
According to Christina, violent crime and sexual assaults have soared in south Tel Aviv since the influx of Africans and the situation is particularly bad on weekends, especially on Friday night, when large groups of drunken migrants congregate on the streets.
Other Neve Sha’anan residents spoke about the infamous “stolen-bike market” run by Africans in one of the main streets in the neighborhood, where stolen bicycles and electric bikes are bought and sold, attracting Israelis from all over the country.
Politicians from coalition parties frequently visit south Tel Aviv to express solidarity with the beleaguered residents. Likud Knesset Member Anat Berko, visiting in early February, said Israel is too small to allow an influx of migrants.
“You’ve got to understand these are work migrants and even though our border with Egypt is now sealed with the border fence, the motivation still exists for more to come,” she said. “Twenty thousand illegal migrants have already returned to their home countries. Israel has absorbed more than 50,000 Jewish immigrants from Ethiopia so this not an issue of racism.”
Berko also highlighted the fact that while making their way to Israel via a number of African states, the migrants passed through areas controlled by the Islamic State and the danger exists that terrorists infiltrated into Israel disguised as refugees.
Berko noted that the Supreme Court has given its approval to the agreement signed between Israel and “third” African countries, widely reported as Rwanda and Uganda, to accept the deportees, and said the court wouldn’t have done so if there was any potential danger to those being deported.
ISRAEL HAS deported approximately 4,000 asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda since December 2013.
However, according to Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, also from the Likud party, the Foreign Ministry has no way of monitoring what happens to the deportees once they land in African third countries.
Hotovely’s remarks, made at a meeting of the Likud Knesset faction, were taped and broadcast on KAN 11 television news.
“Actually, we presently have no way and no means to follow up on the fate of the peo- ple who go there. It doesn’t matter whether they reach Rwanda or Uganda, we cannot follow up on them,” she said, adding, however, that “various solutions have been proposed.
The United Nations High Commission on Refugees office in Israel also expressed concern that due to the secrecy surrounding Israel’s agreements with third African countries it has been very difficult to monitor the situation of people relocated to these countries.
“UNHCR is concerned that these persons have not found adequate safety or a durable solution to their plight and that many have subsequently attempted dangerous onward movements within Africa or to Europe.”
Rwandan officials have denied the existence of a secret deal with Israel and insist the country will only take in people who leave Israel of their own free will, according to international law.
Thousands of African asylum seekers protested outside the Rwandan embassy in Israel in February, calling on Kigali not to cooperate with the Israeli plan to deport them.
The protesters said the plan would put them in danger and claimed the deportations were racist. They urged Rwanda and its president, Paul Kagame, not to cooperate, even though Rwanda is one of Israel’s closest African allies.
“Kagame – We are not for sale,” said one banner. “Prison or Deportation? What would you choose?” said another. “Would you deport me if I was white?” said another, held by protesters with faces painted white.
According to asylum-support groups in Israel, although Rwanda and Uganda are now considered safe countries to live in, this is not the case for those deported from Israel.
Almost none of the 4,000 who were deported to Rwanda and Uganda remained. Most moved on relatively quickly, assisted by human traffickers, to other African countries or joined the smuggling routes to Europe.
One thing is certain: if the deportation goes ahead, it’s going to be a PR nightmare for Israel, with television images flashed around the world of security guards rounding up black men and forcing them onto planes.
Thirty-five former senior Israeli diplomats signed a letter urging Netanyahu to reconsider the policy, warning of the damage to Israel’s image. The former ambassadors and consuls general, including two former heads of the Foreign Ministry, warned that going ahead with the controversial scheme would undermine Israel’s status as a law-abiding and ethical country.
“The situation of refugees and asylum seekers living amongst us is not alien to us. These refugees have fled wars, persecution, dark regimes and starvation,” the letter read. “We must not expel them into the unknown and even to their deaths.”