It has become commonplace for politicians and the Israeli media to call for the deportation of “the Africans.” Israeli newspapers are rallying against them, claiming they are not only dangerous but that they threaten the delicate Jewish character of the state of Israel. Interior Minister Eli Yishai has gone so far as to claim that we have no duty to help them because it’s not Israel that created the difficult situation in either Eritrea or Sudan.

It is with an increasingly heavy heart that I read these articles and see these claims. While Yishai is right in arguing that Israelis are not the cause of the problem in Eritrea or Sudan, he does not explain how we have no moral duty to help people who are seeking asylum – people who were forced to flee from their homes and many times leave their families.

In 1951, with the devastation of World War II and the Holocaust still fresh, the nations of the world, including Israel, signed the refugee convention and the additional protocol in 1967. The convention and protocol, which embody the customary international law principle, place a duty on countries to provide a safe haven to people in their territory, who are outside their country of nationality or habitual residence, that would face a wellfounded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group if they were to return to their home country.

The convention was the world saying “never again.” It allowed for refugees not to be turned away, and not be forced to return to the persecution which they fled. If there is one country in this world that should understand this concept, it is Israel. We are a country of refugees, whether we came from the horrors of the Holocaust, expulsion from Arab states, or anti- Semitism in Russian and Ethiopia. For 65 years, we have turned to Israel to embrace us and offer us a safe haven. We are a people who faced rejection by many states in our times of need and should not be repeating these mistakes or justifying them, regardless of whether the refugees are Africans or from anywhere else.

The Sudanese and Eritrean asylum-seekers should be protected until it is safe for them to return to their countries, unless Israel decides to grant them citizenship. Under international law, this is known as the “Nonrefoulement principle,” which says that a person should not be sent back to a place where he faces a legitimate threat to his life or freedom, unless the person poses a specific threat to the security of the host state. This classification is different from a migrant who may be sent back to his home country because he still enjoys his state’s protection. During a refugee’s stay in the host state he is entitled to the right to work, access to justice, education, housing and he should not face discrimination to his illegal entry in the country.

Israel is not living up to its international obligations. It is not processing refugee claims, and simply providing them with “temporary group protection.” This status denies them the right to work, attain health care or get assistance for their most basic needs. We are neglecting asylum-seekers and we are not blameless when some in their desperation resort to crime.

By refusing to make a decision based on each individual case, the refugees are being deprived the chance to prove their legitimate claim. The UNHCR, contrary to what the Foreign Ministry says, believes that people deported back to South Sudan will not be safe.

The country first to set up field hospitals in Haiti, respond to earthquakes and send aid to countries near and far, should not be turning a blind eye to the stranger among us. Labeling them as criminals and infiltrators is oversimplifying a complex issue. It is spreading racist xenophobia. Our leaders are grouping everyone together instead of judging each individual case.

I do not claim that Israel is required to invite every Eritrean or Sudanese to Israel, or even have a porous border, but how can we, the citizens, and the state ignore the suffering of those who are already here? Surely we can think of a more creative solution than doing nothing, deporting asylum-seekers or placing them in jail. The state sent them on buses from Ktzi’ot Prison in the Haluza sand dunes region and dumped them in south Tel Aviv, and now complains that they are all in Tel Aviv.

The asylum-seekers may pose a threat to Israel, but I would argue that this threat is not demographic, but rather a threat to our standard of morality. Deporting or imprisoning people in their most desperate time, using hate speech, negative propaganda, culminating in fire bombs and protests, are all incompatible with our society – one that is based on the values of freedom and justice.

The writer is a law student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and has a master’s degree in diplomacy from the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. She teaches English to Sudanese asylum-seekers in Jerusalem.

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