In an open letter to Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, 25 international legal experts claimed the Interior Ministry’s expulsion plan for thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers in Israel is a violation of international law.
Monday’s letter came one day after the ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority sent notices to thousands of single African men of working age, ordering them to leave the country within 60 days for an unspecified third country, or be removed forcefully or be imprisoned indefinitely.
The ministry recently announced that women, children and married men will not, for the time being, be subject to forced deportation or imprisonment.
Both penalties are unacceptable in a democratic country, according to the legal experts – including Prof. Eyal Benvenisti, Prof. David Kretzmer, Prof. Moshe Hirsch, Prof. Tomer Broude, Dr. Natalie Davidson, Prof. Orna Ben-Naftali, Prof. Yuval Shany, Prof. Yaël Ronen and Prof. Iris Canor.
“Detention of unlimited duration on the one hand, and expulsion on the other, are not alternatives to be selected from,” they wrote. “Detention of unlimited duration is aimed solely at breaking the detainee’s spirit. This constitutes a violation of international law, specifically as it pertains to human rights.”
There are approximately 38,000 African migrants in Israel, 20,000 of whom reportedly were mailed Sunday’s ultimatum.
Since 2013, the Authority has only reviewed 6,500 of the 15,000 asylum applications submitted and approved only 11.
Noting that the approval rate for Eritrean asylum seekers is nearly 90% in Western countries, the attorneys said, “The Israeli judicial system was in the wrong by not examining and even methodically rejecting almost all asylum requests made by Sudanese and Eritrean nationals.”
While the expulsion notice did not identify the third country to which deportees would be sent, it described the destination as a region “that in the past decade has developed tremendously and that receives thousands of returning residents and immigrants from various African countries.”
The notice goes on to state that those who self-deport will receive a grant of $3,500 at the airport prior to boarding the flight, as well as an entry visa for the unidentified third country.
Those who refuse to leave Israel will be granted a hearing within seven days of receiving the notice, during which time they may present their case. If those expelled do not leave the country within 60 days, the notice states, their visas will be canceled and they will “be subject to enforcement and relocation proceedings for the third country.”
The ministry said it intends to deport a minimum of 300 African migrants a month over the next three years, and announced that it will pay 100 civilian-volunteer “inspectors” a salary, plus a NIS 30,000 bonus, during that period for meeting the quota.
“The State of Israel must abstain from putting the [deportation] protocol into practice and place its immigration policy within the confines of international law,” the letter continued.
Last month, Rwanda Ambassador Olivier Nduhungirehe issued a strongly-worded statement on Twitter denying ongoing reports that his government had made a secret deal with Israel to accept forcefully deported migrants at $5,000 per person.
However, the legal experts said Rwanda, which has been cited for numerous humanrights violations, must be taken off the table entirely as an acceptable option under any circumstances.
“Israel cannot and, moreover, is prohibited from counting on Rwanda in an issue with such far-reaching implications on fundamental rights,” the letter states.
“The deportation policy violates the most basic of human rights, with which all people are endowed, including the rights to life and to liberty,” it continued.
“Therefore, it is our professional duty to speak up. We hope the Israeli government recants on its intent to illegally expel tens of thousands of people under the aforementioned protocol.”
Monday’s letter to the attorney- general is the latest in a series of protests sent to the government by El Al pilots, doctors, Holocaust survivors and the North American Jewish community – all of which stated that the expulsion is antithetical to Jewish values.
Meanwhile Monday, Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that Israel needs to get “ahead of the curve” and be proactive in explaining its decision to deport African migrants.
At a meeting with Jerusalem Post editors, Hoenlein said that while Israel “has to do what it has to do” and cannot change its policies “because a lot of people in American won’t like it,” it needs to realize that the policy will play particularly hard in those segments of the American population where Israel is most concerned it is losing support.
The issue, he said, will be exploited by Israel’s enemies to make their case against the county, “so we have to work doubly hard to make the case, and I think Israel has to go out front and do whatever it can to get the message out clearly to people.”
He suggested that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has “proven himself very good on social media,” explain that Israel is a country that has welcomed in countless immigrants from all over the world, but that it cannot be expected to take in economic refugees.
Nevertheless, he said, it will be difficult for Israel’s narrative to compete with the images that will come with the deportations.
Asked whether that alone might not be a good enough reason for Israel not to carry out the deportation plan, he replied, “I think the security of the country comes first. That is the first consideration you have to make.
“You can’t set policy based on what they will say in the rest of the world,” he said. But, he added, the way the policy is presented and executed should take into account how it will be perceived, and “how it will impact our friends who are supportive of Israel, but who will find this very difficult to defend.”
With the sensitivity of the issue in mind, government officials have circulated a document stressing the following points: • The deportation plan is in accordance with international law.
• Of the 37,000 Sudanese and Eritreans illegally in Israel, no women, children or families will be part of the deportation plan.
• The demographic makeup of the migrants suggests that the overwhelming majority are not refugees, but economic migrants who have come to Israel in search of work. Data from the Population and Immigration Authority show that as of 2017, over two-thirds of the migrants from Sudan and Eritrea are males between the ages of 18 and 40.
• Over the years, 1,000 refugees from Darfur have been granted political asylum in Israel.
• The policy is not aimed at Africans, and that 4,000 illegal Ukrainians and Georgians were deported last year alone.
• Israel in the past has taken in refugees seeking safety from countries such as Vietnam, Lebanon, Egypt, Iran, Bosnia, Kosovo, Eritrea and Sudan.
• The Population and Immigration Authority has recently added 45 new positions to streamline and expedite the process of examining asylum requests.
• The High Court of Justice unanimously rejected a petition to stop deportation to third countries, and found the destination countries – widely believed to be Rwanda and Uganda – to be safe.