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Israel Gives African Migrants A Choice: Accept Deportation or Indefinite Imprisonment

The Israeli cabinet plans to deport 40,000 African asylum seekers, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, giving them the option to leave Israel or face indefinite incarceration. (Photo: picture-alliance/dpa)

As President Trump makes plans to deport up to 55,000 Haitian immigrants out of the United States, his right-wing ally in Israel has similar plans to resolve his own refugee problem. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to deport or imprison 40,000 African asylum seekers against their will, in a move that has drawn criticism from the United Nations, human rights groups, and the refugee community in Israel.

The Israeli cabinet will deport 40,000 African asylum seekers — including 27,500 from Sudan and 7,800 from Eritrea against their will. The government also approved a measure to close the by 2018 the Holot detention center, a facility in the southern Negev desert which currently holds above 1,000 asylum seekers. The Africans, who fled their home countries to escape economic hardship and political repression, will be given a choice: leave Israel for a third country, presumably Rwanda or Uganda in three months, or suffer indefinite detention in Israel. Israel will pay Rwanda $5,000 for each African migrant it accepts, and $3,500 to each African who leaves. The Israeli government will even cover the airfare.

Netanyahu referred to the policy as one of “increased removal” of the “infiltrators,” the derogatory term used for these African people. “This removal is enabled thanks to an international agreement I achieved, which allows us to remove the 40,000 remaining “infiltrators” without their consent. This is very important,” he said. Officials claim Israel has a national duty “to protect the Jewish and democratic character” of the state, with Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who introduced the deportation proposal, arguing the steps were necessary to “return peace and quiet” to the country, and “the right policy to ease the suffering of residents in south Tel Aviv and other neighborhoods where the infiltrators reside.” Culture Minister Miri Regev has called the African refugees “a cancer in our body.”

Israel’s High Court of Justice had approved the policy in August but ruled that officials had to ensure that the countries receiving the migrants are safe.

An African migrant covers his mouth with tape during a protest in Tel Aviv. Oded Balilty / AP Photo

In a statement, the UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, voiced serious concerns about the deportation plan. “Eritreans and Sudanese asylum-seekers and refugees would be compelled to accept relocation to countries in Africa or face imprisonment in Israel,” said the UN agency, adding that these people have not found a lasting solution to their plight or adequate safety, as “many have subsequently attempted dangerous onward movements” within the African continent or to Europe. “Due to the secrecy surrounding this policy and the lack of transparency concerning its implementation, it has been very difficult for UNHCR to follow up and systematically monitor the situation of people relocated to these African countries,” the statement said.

The UN body also noted that while Israel has an obligation as a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention to take in refugees and others in need of international protection, the nation has only recognized eight Eritrean and two Sudanese asylum seekers as refugees since 2009, and has granted humanitarian status to 200 Sudanese refugees from Darfur.

The Refugee Convention is grounded in Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes the right of people to seek refuge from persecution in other countries. The core principle of the convention is non-refoulement, a rule of customary international law which maintains a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to life or freedom.

Writing in The Forward, Russel Neiss, whose Jewish grandmother fled the Nazis in 1939 and sought refuge in Shanghai, noted that Israel not only was the first nation to sign the Refugee Convention but drafted large portions of the document, claiming this as among the nation’s first international diplomatic wins. Noting that Israel was founded by refugees who knew the phrase “Never Again” was more than lip service, he laments that the current Israeli government and the largest opposition party have acted in violation of the spirit of the convention, if not their legal responsibilities as well.

The fifty-year occupation of the Palestinians and the illegal Jewish settlement of their land provides a backdrop to the racial problems in Israel, with systemic discrimination against Israeli Arabs, but also against Israeli Jews of Ethiopian descent, who face institutional racism and police brutality. Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel, themselves survivors of torture, have faced coercion to leave the country and the forced segregation of their children in separate preschools. Now they react to the prospects of deportation with fear and terror, and they feel criminalized.

Moreover, as Haaretz has argued, with a price tag of $400 million or 1.4 billion shekels, the deportation policy is not cost effective. Rather, this is the price Israel is willing to pay to avoid changing its only immigration policy, which is known as the Law of Return — the right of all Jews to come to Israel and gain citizenship. The law came in the wake of the genocide of Jews in the Holocaust and the liberation of the Nazi death camps — among whose liberators were Black soldiers. This law also has stripped Palestinian refugees of their right to return and their citizenship and subjected them to discrimination, segregation, brutality and state repression.

Dror Sadot, a spokeswoman for the Hotline for Migrants and Refugees, told the Jerusalem Post it is “disgraceful” that the Israeli “government intends to sell refugees to Rwanda.” Sadot added that “The State of Israel has deteriorated to the lowest level” and the government has abdicated its responsibility to maintain a humane asylum policy for these survivors of genocide and torture.

“I am not a criminal — I am a mother trying to protect her children and give them a good life,” Shukriyya, 34, a mother who fled genocide in Sudan five years ago, told the Jerusalem Post. “I was told Israel was a country that had [humanity] and accepted people who are persecuted. I do not understand why we are being forced to go leave to live in danger again.”

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