Comment: Israel should reconsider hostile policy on African refugees

Israel was among the first signatories of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees – and for a very important reason.

CHILDREN OF African asylum seekers play on a Tel Aviv beach on Independence Day (photo credit: REUTERS)
CHILDREN OF African asylum seekers play on a Tel Aviv beach on Independence Day
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel is a nation of refugees whom the rest of the world systemically rejected, humiliated, hunted, imprisoned, tortured and murdered for millennia. It is the one place on the planet where a Jew is granted safe passage and protection should history repeat itself, which it often does.
Which in many areas of the world, it is doing right now.
Recognizing a perilous past few could understand, let alone survive, in 1951 Israel was among the first of 145 nations to sign the UN Convention on Refugees, which obligates it to make the asylum application process accessible and humane to those in life-threatening situations.
Today, there are approximately 65 million children, women and men across the globe who meet this criterion.
Among them, a paltry 38,000 Sudanese and Eritrean nationals are desperately seeking asylum in Israel, the sole democracy in the Middle East, lest they return to certain death or torture.
And let there be no confusion: Sudan and Eritrea are hell incarnate that only Jews (and Dante Alighieri) could truly appreciate.
Yet, the Interior Ministry’s plan to indefinitely incarcerate or reportedly forcefully expel them to Rwanda within 90 days – while paying its autocratic government $5,000 a head (like cattle, or slaves) – is very close to becoming reality.
I have watched with morbid incredulity as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads an aggressive and humiliating multi-tiered campaign via the ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority to permanently expel these traumatized people, whom he routinely dehumanizes as “infiltrators.”
According to Netanyahu, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Culture Minister Miri Regev, only a fraction of these refugees are “legitimate” asylum seekers. Instead, they have been dismissed as “infiltrators,” “economic opportunists” and “criminals.”
The problem with this generalization is that the government has chronically refused to review the vast majority of the over 12,000 asylum applications it agreed to appraise since 2013, while patently denying thousands of others the right to simply fill out a form to tell their story.
Indeed, according to the Hotline for Migrants and Refugees, exactly 11 refugees from the most dismal and dangerous realms of the planet have been approved asylum in Israel since then: 10 Eritreans and one Sudanese national.
Instead, they have been locked up in prisons in the Negev; placed in ghettos in impoverished southern Tel Aviv; denied work, or forced to pay a 20% penalty tax for their meager earnings; forced to wait in endless lines at a single government office to renew temporary visas to avert incarceration; and unjustly scapegoated by the government for every conceivable economic and criminal offense, despite no data supporting such allegations.
After taking a “tour” of dystopian southern Tel Aviv last summer – a place whose notorious neglect predates by decades the African population placed there by the government with one-way bus tickets after they risked their lives crossing the Sanai – Netanyahu vowed to “give back” the neighborhood to Israelis.
Accompanied by Erdan and Regev, Netanyahu met with a select group of vetted residents who accused the refugees of propagating the area’s dismal conditions.
And yet, hundreds of longtime Israeli residents who were not invited to tell Netanyahu their observations – who staged forcefully disbanded protests during his tour – raged that he was cynically blaming the Eritreans and Sudanese for a problem of the government’s own making.
South Tel Aviv was always neglected and crime infested, they said.
The African refugees were simply placed in one of the worst neighborhoods in the country out of cynical convenience.
Meanwhile, as the government continues to demonize the 38,000 African asylum-seekers in Israel, a recent report estimates that more than 22,000 Ukrainian and Georgian refugees have fraudulently entered the country since 2011 through human-trafficking scams.
The report, titled “Through Hidden Corridors: New trends in human trafficking which exploit the asylum system in Israel,” was compiled by the African advocacy NGO Hotline for Refugees and Migrants.
According to Sigal Rozen, public policy director for the NGO, companies are “taking advantage of Israel’s dysfunctional asylum policies” by charging large fees to Ukrainian and Georgian asylum-seekers via websites to arrange safe passage without being labeled “infiltrators,” like their African counterparts.
Remarkably, they have remained under the government’s far-reaching radar. Could this have anything to do with the color of their skin?
I do not write these words from the upscale neighborhood of Rehavia, where the prime minister and other privileged Israelis live. I live in south Tel Aviv, adjacent to the ghettos where the vast majority of Eritreans and Sudanese live.
I see these men, women and children every single day. I have interviewed dozens of them in depth and heard their stories – about the rapes of their mothers, sisters and daughters, the murders of their family members and friends, the hopelessness and fear.
If these people don’t qualify as refugees, then who does?
Netanyahu’s coalition argues that the government cannot be responsible for the well-being of the world’s downtrodden and that their admittance as citizens will compromise the “character of the Jewish state.”
That is rubbish.
Israel was among the first to sign the UN Convention on Refugees – and later its 1967 Protocol, further ratifying its terms – for a very important reason: It is populated with millions of asylum seekers who once faced certain death.
Of course, the government cannot be responsible for a disproportionate percentage of the world’s downtrodden, but it certainly can accommodate this endangered relatively small quota, which amounts to a fraction of the total population.
Indeed, 38,000 Sudanese and Eritrean men, women and children among over 6.5 million Jews is hardly an existential threat to the Jewish state. It is a blip on its map. And by the grace of God, Israel actually has the resources to absorb them and treat them with humanity.
It has simply chosen not to.
Worse yet, by denying these people humanity and due diligence, the government is playing directly into our enemies’ hands – those who falsely claim Israel is an “apartheid state” disguised as democracy.
As for those who doubt the legitimacy of the Sudanese and Eritreans presently living among us, I would suggest you come to south Tel Aviv and meet them. Listen to their stories.
You will find they are kind people with awfully familiar narratives to those plaguing Jewish history.
The government has the equation all wrong: They are not a population of opportunists with nominal genuine refugees. Just the opposite.
They are not parasites or rabid criminals – they are overwhelmingly hard-working people hoping to give their children a better life. To give them hope.
Sound familiar?
Amid the feverish legislation to forcefully deport tens of thousands of African refugees to Rwanda, the Population and Migration Authority proudly released a report last week claiming no “infiltrators” entered Israel in 2017.
Moreover, it is doubtful that statistic will change considerably in years to come.
Therefore, instead of spending millions of shekels to deport or imprison them, why not proactively utilize willing workers who will take the jobs no one wants and put them to work to build much-needed hospitals, schools, Jewish neighborhoods and improved infrastructure?
Now, as the world closely watches, the government is moving ever faster toward a red line that must never be crossed.
This government has a shining opportunity to do the right thing.
Should it falter, which all signs indicate it will, then the world and history will rightly judge the Jewish state for its patent hypocrisy for millennia to come.
In the end, this is not an issue of political leanings – it is overwhelmingly one of Jewish values.
During his 2017 UN speech, Netanyahu quoted Isaiah, stating that the State of Israel is “a light unto the nations, bringing salvation to the ends of the earth.”
May he prove his words true.