Jerusalem initiates plan to forcibly return tens of thousands of people back to Africa
Israel this week came under fire from the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) over its plan to deport tens of thousands of African migrants, primarily from Eritrea and Sudan. The move follows the Israeli parliament’s passage of the so-called “anti-infiltration” law, which calls for the closure of the controversial Holot migrant detention facility by the end of March and the imprisonment of “illegals” who thereafter remain in the country.
To encourage migrants to self-deport, the government is offering a one-time payment of $3,500 along with other incentives, such as airfare, to those who voluntarily leave the country, with Jerusalem having allocated some $50 million to cover such expenditures. Israel’s Population and Migration Authority (PIBA) claimed that a deal was forged to enable migrants to return to third-party nations, reportedly Rwanda and Uganda, despite public denials by Kigali and Kampala, respectively.
Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced that an additional 180 personnel officers would be recruited into PIBA, in a bid to enforce deportations over the course of two years. While forty of the new employees will supposedly be tasked with assessing asylum requests, according to Sharon Harel, a senior representative of the UNHCR in Israel, “the government refuses to share whether it will [in fact] review the claims.” She echoed to The Media Line her organization’s previous findings that, “since Israel took over refugee status determination from UNHCR in 2009, only ten Eritreans and one Sudanese have been recognized as refugees.”
Yuval Rotem, Director General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, explained to The Media Line that “the Israeli government has its own policy, [while still] ascribing to conventions on refugees, as stipulated by international law. Israel is dealing with the migrant crisis in the same manner as many countries all over the world, like the United States,” he contended. Similarly, Sabine Haddad, a spokeswoman for Israel’s Interior Ministry—the body ultimately responsible for overseeing the deportations—stressed to The Media Line that “asylum requests are approved in accordance with international conventions and each one is dealt with individually.”
The rules governing the treatment of migrants are elaborate, according to Dr. Robbie Sabel, Professor of International Law at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Under international law, a state cannot deport migrants to a country where there is a real risk of being endangered,” he told The Media Line. In this respect, Harel noted that, “the UNHCR has proven that deportees are barred from access to asylum upon relocation. In Uganda, for example, if a deportee mentions he is from Israel, he is automatically denied refugee status.”
For her part, Tamara Newman, Director of the Israel-based Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, revealed to The Media Line that “the [Israeli] government is promising refugees legal status and the right to work in Rwanda, but all the research says otherwise. They end up in detention and then sent back to the countries they came from.”
While the migrants’ plight should theoretically be alleviated by the incentives Israel is offering, those interviewed by the UNHCR after relocating to Africa reported that, upon arrival, the situation was “different to what most had expected with little further support provided beyond accommodation on the first night.” Somewhat paradoxically, the returning migrants expressed feeling “unsafe as they were known to have money [given to them by Israel].”
According to May Golan, CEO of the Hebrew City NGO, which campaigns against illegal immigration, “Israelis have been living under an occupation. Jews have been running away from their homes and women are being raped by these illegal infiltrators,” she told The Media Line. Golan’s organization has been “fighting, lobbying and petitioning the Supreme Court for the last seven years to have to have infiltrators sent back to Africa.” She concluded by questioning how individuals or groups could support the migrants, blaming the associated movement on “anti-Semitic agencies that have as an agenda…for Israel to be called anything other than a Jewish nation.”
Despite widespread criticism, Jerusalem is intent on advancing its initiative, with PIBA procedural documents obtained by The Media Line stipulating that, “as of [February 1] any infiltrator from Eritrea or Sudan whose visa is about to expire [and] who comes to renew his visa at the offices of the Authority and the Border Control Officer [will have the] visa only extended by 60 days.”
The situation, then, is a bit of a double-edged sword and it is doubtful that anyone will emerge unscathed. Israel will continue to adhere to its position that its policy abides by international law, whereas migrant advocates will go on describing the alleged persecution of those deported upon their return to Africa. In the end, both sides may be right, perhaps evidencing the need—including in the U.S. and Europe, both struggling to tackle migration issues—for comprehensive legislative reform on the matter.
(Daniella P. Cohen is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)