Eritrean migrants in Tel Aviv..
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
In an article published in The Jerusalem Post, Tal Harris argued that Israel must learn from the “impetuosity” of its 2012 repatriation of Sudanese migrants to their newly founded country of South Sudan, being that we now have hindsight knowledge of the civil war that broke out a year-and-a-half later and its repercussions. He further argued that “based on only a few preliminary and inconclusive reports,” Israel should not rush to deport Eritreans back to Eritrea despite the recent peace agreement with Ethiopia.
I fully endorse the argument that Israel should not forcefully deport any person to a place that poses danger. Indeed, Israel has not deported a single Eritrean migrant for more than a decade, instead awarding them blanket protection, which I will argue, is in many cases too wide. Nevertheless, I reject both the basic premise that Israel acted with “impetuosity,” as Harris describes it, in the case of South Sudan, and in any attempt to draw any comparison to Eritrea.
It is imperative to understand that Israel decided to return the migrants to South Sudan only months after its independence, and seven years after the signing of the “Comprehensive Peace Agreement” that put an end to hostilities with the government in Khartoum. Hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese nationals returned with assistance from the UN, including over a thousand migrants who returned voluntarily from Israel. Even the Israeli branch office of the UNHCR did not object to the general notion of return, with some specific reservations.
The South Sudanese were not the first group to enjoy a status of “group protection” that was withdrawn once the situation stabilized and were required to leave.
Israel imparted similar status to Liberian migrants up until 2007, and to Côte d’Ivoire citizens until the end of 2011. In both cases, there were also those who called to wait until the situation “further stabilizes.” In reality, the majority of the migrants returned successfully, and the situation in those countries has remained peaceful until today.
To argue with hindsight that Israel should refrain from returning migrants to a country deemed safe, for the sole reason that violence may erupt at some point of time in the future, is clearly baseless. It seems that this argument is brought up more often than not by pro-migrant advocates solely as an effort to endlessly stall any option of return, even when this is totally, legally and morally reasonable. When they say “stabilization,” they usually mean nothing less than an unrealistic Nordic GDP and Western constitutional democracy.
Not only is this disingenuous in many cases, but I would argue that the safe return of migrants who enjoyed temporary protection is crucial for public support in awarding asylum to people who are genuinely in danger. That willingness diminishes when migrants and their advocates demand permanent status or use endless delay tactics, damaging the cause as a whole.
MORE IMPORTANT is that there is no equivalency which can be drawn between the situation in South Sudan and Eritrea, except for their sitting in the same geographic region. There is nothing “unstable” in Eritrea. In fact, some would argue that this one-party state has been too stable for more than a quarter of a decade. While there is no dispute that the regime is far from a Jeffersonian democracy, we know from many sources – totally regardless of the peace process with Ethiopia – that there is no general danger to all those who return to the country.
Since 2014, official government missions from Denmark, Britain, Norway and Switzerland reported that except for a minority of government opponents and religious sects, migrants who approach the Eritrean Embassy and pay a 2% tax can return safely, irrespective if they evaded military service or not. This position was also adopted by the European Asylum Support Office, an official body of the European Union, in August 2016.
The numbers from Israel do not lie either, with over 3,300 Eritreans who chose to accept the government grant returning home of their own volition. There are also category groups that are generally accepted as being able to return exempt of paying the tax, including married women and veterans. There are many Eritreans as well who have actively expressed their support of their government, as Israeli citizens were made painfully aware with the eruption of violence between pro- and anti-regime Eritrean migrants in south Tel Aviv.
The crux of the problem lies in the fact that the Eritrean economy is heavily dependent on remittances sent back home by these migrants, estimated at more than a third of its GDP. The result is that the government is unwilling to accept forceful returns and be denied this crucial income.
For this reason, we at the Israeli Immigration Policy Center, an NGO aimed at promoting a responsible immigration policy for Israel, promoted the “Deposit Law.”
This law requires employers to deposit 20% of a migrant’s salary into a government-run bank account, to be retrieved only upon their exit from Israel. The Israeli government has been very slow at implementing this law, but it is clear that if vigorously enforced, the economic incentive to stay in Israel in the long term will eventually diminish, both for the migrants themselves, their families and hopefully even their uncooperative governments.
While the peace agreement is a welcome development that we hope will bring about positive change for Eritreans and the Horn of Africa as a whole, it is should not be a prerequisite for the return of Eritrean migrants to their homeland. Not only are active actions to achieve this not impetuous, they are actually long overdue. The writer is executive director of the Israeli Immigration Policy Center.