AN AFRICAN migrant walks with his luggage after being released from Holot detention center in the Negev in 2015..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Rwanda recently declared that it is willing to host as many as 30,000 African migrants currently trapped in Libya and being sold openly in modern-day slave markets. A tiny, densely populated African country recovering from the trauma of genocide, Rwanda was the first country to offer asylum to these unfortunate victims of human traffickers.
International public opinion applauded this generous gesture.
The African Union expressed its appreciation. Europe was relieved that an African country was taking on this burden. And in Israel? In August, the Supreme Court made a decision that affirmed the right of the state to send African asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan to Rwanda and Uganda, after signing formal agreements with these countries. Although the court ruled that Israel could deport African asylum seekers to third African countries willing to accept them, it also asserted that the government could not deport asylum seekers against their will.
Israel had previously sent thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese to Rwanda and Uganda who accepted “voluntary” deportation after being threatened with imprisonment and promised $3,500 each and legal status in these countries if they agreed to go. Even though Israel had not signed agreements to that effect with Rwanda and Uganda, these countries let them in.
Though safer than Sudan and Eritrea, where returnees could be imprisoned or killed, Rwanda was far from being a safe haven. While the asylum seekers received the $3,500 for leaving, they did not get the promised legal status in those countries.
UN records show that very few Eritreans and Sudanese were registered as refugees or asylum seekers.
Lacking legal protection, nearly all were forced to leave and move from country to country in search of protection.
After this year’s Supreme Court’s ruling, the government launched a relentless campaign based on incitement and intimidation to remove all African asylum seekers from the country. The incitement has taken many forms: labeling asylum seekers ‘’illegal infiltrators” and “occupiers” and promising south Tel Aviv residents that the government would “take back” their neighborhoods as though they were “occupied” by armed and conquering aliens.
The main instrument of intimidation consists of giving African asylum seekers two choices: deportation or prison. Contrary to the Supreme Court’s ruling, the government insists that it has the authority to deport asylum seekers to any country that will accept them. If they refuse, it threatens to send them to Saharonim Prison in the Negev.
Less than a week before Rwanda declared its intention to accept thousands of African slave migrants from Libya, the Israeli media were full of reports that the Israeli government had just concluded an agreement with Rwanda that offered the Rwandan government $5,000 for each one taken in and $3,500 to every deported asylum seeker. Israeli officials confirmed the story without releasing the text of the agreement.
Contrary to reports in Israel that Israel had already signed a formal agreement with Rwanda, Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwaboo in an interview this week with Rwanda’s New Times noted that Rwanda and Israel are still negotiating the conditions for accepting Israel’s African asylum seekers.
Mushikiwaboo made it clear that Rwanda would not accept forced migration from Israel. “We have had discussions with Israel on receiving some of the immigrants and asylum seekers from this part of Africa who are willing to come to Rwanda,” he noted. “If they are comfortable to come here, we would be willing to accommodate them.” Rwanda offered to host 10,000 African asylum seekers from Israel.
Despite its generous offer, it is doubtful that Rwanda has the resources to meet the needs of thousands of African asylum seekers. It has already taken in some 160,000 asylum seekers and refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi. The numbers are steadily increasing, while financial resources provided by the international community to help Rwanda represent only a small fraction of what had been originally pledged.
It is doubtful that Rwanda will be able to absorb and sustain some 40,000 new migrants and asylum seekers, let alone support those already in the country, without massive new external financing.
Recent UNHCR reports concerning refuge programs in Rwanda and Uganda also warn about inadequate food rations, potable water and health facilities. These are further aggravated by cuts in European and American humanitarian aid budgets and expanding numbers of asylum seekers.
Rwanda deserves to be praised for stepping up to help slave migrants in Libya and Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel and especially for its rejection of forced deportation and willingness to welcome asylum seekers wanting to come to their country, While its policy of forced deportation of African asylum-seekers might gain some extra votes for the government coalition from south Tel Aviv residents, racists, and those opposed to accepting any non-Jewish refugees, it is not the solution.
Israel has the room, resources, and employment opportunities to successfully accommodate African asylum seekers already here. They comprise only half a percent of Israel’s total population and less than half the number of illegal migrants and individuals still in the country after their visas had expired.
Israelis should ask the government to be more honest and transparent about how it deals with African asylum seekers and negotiations with African countries. Let the media and Israel society look at the facts. Once we do that, we can formulate a realistic refugee policy based on empathy for those fleeing persecution and oppression that reflects traditional Jewish values and Israel’s status as a Jewish and democratic state.