African migrants take part in a protest against Israel's detention policy toward them.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
NEW YORK – “Israel never set up a valid, fair and effective refugee determination process,” Irwin Cotler, a former justice minister and attorney-general of Canada, told The Jerusalem Post recently
“Initially, Israel did the right thing,” said Cotler, one of the country’s most articulate defenders. “They gave both the Darfurians and Eritreans temporary protective stay. Then the numbers started to increase and in 2009 the discourse in Israel changed.”
According to Cotler, over the last decade, Israel has made an inward turn and eschewed its responsibilities to protect asylum-seekers, preferring instead to use the African migrant issue as a political weapon.
“In 2013, Israel built a wall... and the influx of [migrants] effectively stopped, and as of 2017, there was not one asylum-seeker that made it to Israel,” he said. “Yet the discourse remained, along with the notion that they represented a security threat and a demographic threat. While understandable when they were coming in [between] 2009 and 2010, was not really valid any longer.”
Cotler said the migrant issue has been mishandled from the start, first with the government’s plan to usher thousands into south Tel Aviv rather than disbursing them equitably throughout the country.
With the high concentration of the minority group in one area, Colter said political leaders began a campaign of “criminalization” of the illegal African community, which only served to incite Tel Aviv residents against them.
“I myself have made many visits to southern Tel Aviv over the years and acknowledge the pain and fear that besets many of these residents,” he said. “But this could have been avoided by not sending them to southern Tel Aviv to begin with, by not inciting against them, and by providing for proper employment and social services until such time as their asylum request could be properly processed, which has still yet to be done...
“Regrettably also, the Israeli treatment of the asylum-seekers is increasingly prejudicing Israel in the court of public opinion – in a world in which refugees is a prominent concern on the human-rights radar screen – when Israel could so easily and properly redress and remedy the situation.”
Cotler lamented the fact that Israeli leaders were so short-sighted on the issue, arguing that the migrants were a net benefit to the country rather than a detriment.
“Indeed, the asylum-seekers should be seen as a prospective resource for Israel – politically, diplomatically and economically – rather than stereotyped as criminals and threats,” he said, adding: “In short, what is so necessary now is for government and [the Knesset] to change the discourse, to cease and desist from any incitement and to put in place a proper refugee determination system as befits a democracy like Israel, and even more so, as befits a country whose ethics and ethos effectively commands us to respect the stranger, let alone not to persecute them.”
“There is no contradiction, as it has sometimes been suggested, between Zionism and human rights and between Israel as a Jewish democratic state,” Cotler said. “It is bad policy, and bad proclamations, which create false dichotomies. A Jewish and democratic state, which Israel is, can address and redress these problems thereby reflecting and representing the best of our tradition and our democracy.”