Amid an increasingly heated debate involving the legality and morality of the government’s ultimatum that 20,000 African migrants leave Israel within 60 days or be imprisoned, a self-described conservative Israeli NGO claims that the expulsion is indeed principled and its critics are misguided.
“We have to put this story into the right context,” Israeli Immigration Policy Center spokesman Yonatan Jakubowicz said. “The reports that we are seeing that people are being sent to their deaths or torture in Rwanda or Uganda are absolutely and unequivocally false.
“The UNHCR [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] writes on its website that both countries have among the most progressive asylum systems in the world. So, we know that they are safe countries, and no one is being sent to their deaths.”
The issue reached a fever pitch Sunday, when the Interior Ministry’s Immigration and Border Authority sent out notices to Eritrean and Sudanese migrants of working age stating that they must agree to leave for an undisclosed third country, or be incarcerated indefinitely.
The ministry recently announced that Eritrean and Sudanese women, children and married men will not, for the time being, be subjected to deportation or imprisonment.
Asked about claims that migrants sent to Rwanda and Uganda do not receive official status, are fleeced of the $3,500 the Israeli government pays them to leave and are forced to seek asylum elsewhere, Jakubowicz cited a visit to Rwanda from former attorney-general Yehuda Weinstein in 2015 as evidence of the contrary.
“A few months before he left his office, he went to Rwanda himself with a mission sent by Israel to view the process – which, most importantly, was reviewed by the district court in Beersheba and then, on appeal, in the Supreme Court, which said unanimously that all agreements are upheld by Israeli and international law, and that those countries are safe,” he said.
“And the Supreme Court has been very active in its protection of migrants’ rights,” Jakubowicz continued. “It has canceled the anti-infiltration law three times in a row, and I don’t think there has been any other issue in Israeli history that the Supreme Court has been so active in upholding rights against government action.”
Moreover, he said Israeli entry law allows the government to incarcerate anyone who is in the country illegally, or to forcefully deport them if a third country agrees to take them against their will.
ASKED WHY the Interior Ministry refuses to state which third country it intends to deport migrants to, Jakubowicz cited political concerns by the government in question for agreeing to accept forcefully deported refugees.
Last month, Rwanda Ambassador Olivier Nduhungirehe issued a strongly worded denial about ongoing reports that his government made a secret deal with Israel to accept forcefully deported migrants at $5,000 per person.
“There are sensitivities to seeing mass deportations from Israel,” Jakubowicz said. “So [the unstated third country] doesn’t want political pressure from NGOs that that kind of action would create.”
Nonetheless, noting previous agreements between Israel and Rwanda and Uganda, Jakubowicz conceded that “everybody pretty much knows which country it is. The fact that thousands of people have already left for those countries, and the Supreme Court has approved the agreement, shows that for its own political reasons [the country in question] doesn’t want that pressure on them, and that pressure is quite immense.”
In terms of the government’s contention that the vast majority of African migrants are economic opportunists or army deserters, and not refugees fearing for their lives, Jakubowicz said statistics from the Interior Ministry proves the former, although no credible data supporting that has been made public.
“Out of 65,000 [African migrants] who came into the country from the Egyptian border, only 15,000 have submitted asylum requests,” he said. “Although one side says that [the request process] was too complicated, we know that is not correct... I think the reason the majority have not submitted asylum requests is because they know they are not genuine refugees.”
However, according to numerous reports and testimonies from Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers, the Interior Ministry has made applying for asylum and visas extraordinarily difficult by only utilizing one government office with limited hours of operation, creating incredibly long lines and severely limited service.
It is illegal to deport an asylum-seeker whose application is pending.
One area that Jakubowicz concedes the government has faltered on is the fact that it has only reviewed 6,500 of the 15,000 asylum applications it has received since 2013. Of the applications reviewed, exactly 11 were approved: 10 Eritreans and one Sudanese national.
“The government should have done more to process the asylum requests faster,” he said. “I believe they should have done it right in the beginning, and not given them group protection.”
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