CHILDREN OF African asylum seekers play on a Tel Aviv beach on Independence Day.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Eighteen months ago, Israel embarked on an ambitious policy to “return to Africa” and to strengthen our political, economic and cultural ties with that continent.
In pursuing forced deportation, the government does not seem to realize that it can’t force African asylum- seekers to return to their home countries or go to other African countries against their will. Rwanda and Uganda, the targeted destinations, have denied that they have agreements with Israel to do so. No African country would dare to accept thousands of arriving African asylum- seekers handcuffed like criminals and accompanied by foreign security officials.
The surge in Sudanese and Eritrean asylum-seekers entering Israel from Sinai between 2006 and 2012 aroused fears that our country would be overwhelmed by a massive influx of Africans if not stopped. The completion of the Sinai fence in December 2012 solved that problem. Since then, fewer than 500 asylum-seekers managed to enter the country through the Sinai border.
Rather than declaring victory and establishing a humane refugee policy that respected the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, signed by Israel, and the 1992 Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty, Israel opted for a policy to rid Israel of all non-Jewish African asylum-seekers. It justified this policy by falsely claiming that Israel had no or almost no refugees and asserting that nearly all were illegal economic migrants or draft dodgers and thus suitable candidates for legal deportation.
Our government has tried to make the lives of asylum-seekers here miserable so that they would leave “voluntarily.” Israel offered each asylum-seeker $3,500 for voluntary deportation as an alternative to prison and detention in Holot. Our government also assured asylum-seekers going to Rwanda and Uganda that they would be granted protection, legal documentation and the right to work on arrival. These promises were never kept.
Because asylum-seekers chose “voluntary” deportation and resettlement in Europe and North America when possible over prison, their numbers dropped drastically from over 60,000 in 2012 to 35,000 at the end of 2017.
At the international level, anti-asylum- seeker policies tarnish Israel’s image and provide ammunition to BDS and anti-Israel forces attacking Israel. At the national level, current government policies are costly and wasteful.
INSTEAD OF ill-conceived policies that provide few benefits to Israel and its citizens, alternatives based on regarding African asylum-seekers as a national asset and bridge to Africa are needed: • Stop punishing employers who hire African asylum-seekers. The current policy exacerbates labor shortages and necessitates bringing in more legal foreign workers to fill the gap. The policy is especially harmful to hotels, restaurants and the booming tourist industry now heavily dependent on African cooks, dishwashers, cleaners and beach chair attendants.
• Costs entailed in importing foreign workers to fill labor shortages can be reduced by training and hiring African asylum-seekers in their place. Training can be given in sectors such as health, agriculture, solar energy, construction, language and computer skills.
• University education in law, economics and other social sciences, management, engineering, entrepreneurship, innovation and hi-tech could prepare African asylum-seekers to assume leadership roles when they return to their countries.
• The Negev is an underpopulated region that needs more workers to reach its development potential and to fulfill Ben-Gurion’s vision of transforming the desert. The creation of employment opportunities and access to health and other public services coupled with incentives to local communities to accept African asylum-seekers would enable large numbers to leave south Tel Aviv neighborhoods for the Negev.
• Money now used to finance prisons, detention centers, and deportation logistics and payoffs can be reallocated to fight crime, improve housing, infrastructure, and public services in south Tel Aviv. This policy would provide some compensation to south Tel Aviv residents for the burden caused by placing large numbers of African asylum-seekers in their neighborhoods without a plan and against their will.
Additional funding and investment to implement a win-win alternative refugee policy might also come from Israeli and Diaspora Jewish businessmen and philanthropists committed to Israel.
Despite their harsh treatment by the government and incitement by racist elements in Israeli society, Sudanese and Eritreans appreciate the protection offered here and value their friendships with many Israelis.
Asylum-seekers can provide Israelis with greater understanding of African conditions and culture needed for Israel to promote development, expand trade, and make friends in Africa.
If treated fairly and generously by the government, they would repudiate charges that Israel is a racist state. When they return to Sudan and Eritrea, when conditions permit, they would become partners working together to promote development and allies supporting Israel politically.
Israel’s refugee policy based on deportation is out of tune with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration of love for Africa. By treating African asylum-seekers as an unbearable burden to be removed at all costs, he risks sabotaging his own promising African policy, which has much to offer Israel in offering much to Africa.The author is a Jerusalem-based African scholar and international development consultant specializing in democracy and development issues.