How incongruous that a country born of the worst genocide in history should want to deport asylum-seekers seeking shelter to a nation synonymous with another genocide. That is the intention of Israel – send their unwanted visitors to Rwanda. Virtually all of them are Eritreans and Sudanese, both their countries ruled by harsh despots. Israel says they are not genuine refugees, but ‘infiltrators’ and mostly economic migrants. More to the point, the underlying rationale is that their numbers threaten Israel’s Jewish character.
Israel has about 38,000 Africans in detention. They crossed the Sinai between 2006 and 2012 until Israel built a wall to stop them. Since then, they have been held in a prison or a detention centre in the Negev desert or been allowed into society. In that time, only eight Eritreans and two Sudanese have been recognised as refugees, according to the newspaper Haaretz. In contrast, the overwhelming majority of asylum-seekers who sought refuge in Europe have been accepted as refugees.
Forcible expulsion to a third country is largely unprecedented in the Western world. Australia tried it in 2011 under its agreement with Malaysia until the High Court ruled against it. Italy tried the same with Libya with the same result. The courts ruled that such action was out of step with international law and the UN convention on refugees, to which Israel is also a party.
Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was not convinced. His main concern was appeasing the hard Right nationalists to maintain his coalition. ‘This removal is taking place thanks to an international agreement I reached that enables us to remove the 40,000 infiltrators …remove them without their consent’, he told his cabinet, according to the Times of Israel.
The agreement Netanyahu refers to is reported to be with Rwanda and Uganda. Previously both countries agreed to accept only those who left voluntarily or willingly. But now, according to Israel media reports, the deal has been sweetened: US$5000 a head. They say Rwanda has agreed to accept 10,000 of them, a useful $50m contribution to its coffers. Uganda newspapers expressed outrage at the very idea of their country being used as a dumping ground when it has already given shelter to one million refugees from neighbouring South Sudan.
UN conventions aside, Israel can now do this legally. This follows a Supreme Court decision last month that anyone can be deported whose asylum request is not pending. It just so happens that the Interior Ministry, which handles this, has dawdled in processing applications.
The omens for the Africans are anything but encouraging based on the experiences of the 4000 who willingly went to a third country with a handout of $3500 each. There were widespread complaints of mistreatment on arrival. Volunteers dried up when the news filtered back.
Apart from the 10,000 reportedly earmarked for a new life in Rwanda, where the other 30,000 Africans will go has not been spelled out. The UNHCR described the new policy as ‘secretive…and difficult to monitor’. Haaretz reported that Eritreans being prepared for expulsion were handed a document written in Hebrew which stated:
‘The State of Israel has made arrangements allowing you to leave Israel for a safe third country that will take you in and give you a residence permit that will allow you to work and ensure you will not be deported to your country of origin’.
The document does not specify which country, but goes on to say:
‘(It) has developed greatly and has taken in thousands of returning residents from various African countries. This country has a stable government that contributes to development in many areas, among them education, medicine and infrastructure’.
It’s as if to say ‘That’s alright, then’.
The Supreme Court seems to think so as well. Its president, Miriam Naor, in a judgment with four other justices, said the court must ensure the deportees actually receive all their rights in the third country. A fellow judge agreed, saying the court must serve as the deportees’ ‘mouth and eyes’. How they would apply this was not explained.
The government is now using coercion. Those with jobs have to forfeit 20% of their salary which will be payable once they leave the country. Employers face fines if they hire asylum-seekers. Any asylum-seeker who refuses to go will be imprisoned indefinitely despite the Supreme Court limiting it to 60 days.
Netanyahu says the main detention centre will be closed when the Africans depart and this will save the country’s budget millions. He said the economies can be used for, among other things, ‘removing more people’. He may have been referring to the 20,000 Georgians and Ukrainians who came to Israel the easy way – by air as tourists – and claimed political asylum. Somehow they seem less of a priority.
The deportations now face a growing emotive opposition from Israelis with their own painful history of suffering, including as refugees from oppression. Groups of doctors, psychologists, nurses, social workers, academics, school principals, El Al air crew, rabbis and even Holocaust survivors have said deporting the Africans is unacceptable. Volunteers have offered to hide them just as Anne Frank was. A letter from academics noted: “We must remember that we, too, were once persecuted and victimised. We, too, were once aliens and we should happily embrace refugees who have fled their homeland in order to save their and their families’ lives’.
The forcible removal of the Africans may come back to haunt Netanyahu. ‘It’s impossible not to be shocked by the malice and racism behind this ethnic cleansing plan – the removal of non-Jewish black people on account of their skin colour’, wrote Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy. What happens if third countries cannot be found? What happens if thousands refuse to go? The main detention centre is due to be closed and the prisons are already overcrowded. These coming weeks may well be yet another critical chapter in modern Israel’s short history when the country’s reputation as a sanctuary for those driven from their homes is put to the test.
How ironic it is that the asylum-seekers should be sent to the same region where early in the 20th century the British considered offering part of what is now Kenya to the early Zionists as a homeland for the Jews. They also were fleeing repression in their home countries – in this case, Russia and Europe.
FOOTNOTE. Australia’s carrot to tempt Manus Island and Nauru detainees to find a new life in Cambodia has been a failure. The ABC reported that only seven have taken up the offer, four of whom then decided to return to their countries. Canberra remains committed to Cambodia as a safe place despite its own statements of concern about Hun Sen’s crackdown on political rights and other basic freedoms. Saving face is perhaps understandable when it promised Cambodia $40m over four years to take them in.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.