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Asylum-seekers, back to those shithole countries for you

Deporting African asylum-seekers is abhorrent, un-Jewish, and reverses recent strides in Israel-Africa relations
African migrants take part at a protest in Tel Aviv on June 10, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
African migrants take part at a protest in Tel Aviv on June 10, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Israel is expediting measures to deport the remaining African asylum-seekers in the country at precisely the same time that it is courting states on the continent in a stepped-up effort to expand ties. The long-term goal of fostering links with various states in the sub-Sahara (strongly propelled by the hope of gaining more support in international bodies) is hardly served by the obsessive hounding of some 34,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees, who cannot return to their countries of origin for fear of life and limb. Many Israelis — and significant spokespeople of Jewish communities around the world — have denounced these moves on humanitarian, legal and moral grounds, as well as for reasons rooted in Jewish history and sacred sources. These compelling arguments have yet to induce a change in government policy. Perhaps they should be supplemented by more prosaic ones: the current Israeli policy is misleading, self-defeating, and simply stupid.

The government’s determination to rid the country of the dwindling number of African refugees in the country (but hardly of the swelling ranks of migrants from the Ukraine and other beleaguered countries in Eastern Europe whose requests for asylum, unlike those of their African counterparts, are being processed with alacrity) has gathered steam in recent weeks, with the adoption of yet another amendment to the Law to “Prevent Infiltration and to Ensure the Exit of Infiltrators from Israel” barely a month ago. Those covered by the new legislation have been served notice that they must leave the country within three months with a $3,500 subsidy, or be jailed indefinitely. Anyone who employs these “infiltrators” will be heavily fined and subjected to incarceration. This bill follows on another amendment from last January compelling workplaces to withhold 20 percent of the paychecks of asylum-seekers — to be reimbursed only upon departure from the country.

The government is currently recruiting inspectors to help carry out this expulsion, offering bonuses to those who prove especially adept at this task (a glance at the job requirements published in the weekend papers makes it amply clear that combat experience is a must). To back up these steps, government spokespeople, from the prime minister down, continue to justify these moves as necessary for the safety of the residents of south Tel Aviv and as critical to the protection of the country, thus fueling populist sentiments — especially in underprivileged quarters. The attendant rhetoric is peppered repeatedly with blatantly xenophobic and racist statements blaming migrants for a variety of ills — ranging from criminal behavior to lack of hygiene.

Despite this orchestrated campaign, few policies have touched on so many raw nerves as those involving African asylum-seekers. Indeed, in the past few months alone, the ranks of veteran migrant rights associations have expanded with new volunteers and the number of groups devoted to preventing any further expulsions has actually increased. New initiatives abound and the number of petitions drawn up by activists, academics, high school pupils and thousands of diverse citizens demanding a reconsideration of the deportation policy both in Israel and abroad is legion. Many Israelis — and not just people associated with the opposition — find it difficult to understand how Israel, one of the key advocates of the landmark International Convention on the Status of Refugees after World War II, can so breezily flout its guiding principles. They deplore the cruelty, insensitivity and illegitimacy of these moves, appealing to the conscience of those in charge to reconsider their approach. Even appeals based on economic interests, however, such as the need to import other foreign workers to fill the shoes of those being deported, have yet to make a dent in the position of the government.

Two other arguments may, perhaps, help dislodge decision-makers from their insistence on carrying out what is an inherently indefensible policy. The first exposes the fragility (if not the mendacity) of the government’s claim that Rwanda and Uganda, the countries slated to receive the deportees, have agreed to absorb not only Africans leaving the country “voluntarily,” but also those evicted against their will.

The legality of the current policy rests on a High Court of Justice ruling that permits the expulsion of asylum-seekers to third countries only if the government can show that the receiving countries are prepared to accept them. Benjamin Netanyahu touted (but never revealed) such understandings with Rwanda and Uganda several months ago. But senior officials of both countries deny that any such agreements exist. In December, Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs Louise Mushikiwaboo stated that Rwanda and Israel are still negotiating the issue. Just last week, the State Secretary for Foreign Affairs of Rwanda, Olivier Nduhungirihe, told The Associated Press that “there were negotiations like three or four years ago between the two countries, but we never concluded on the matter.” These declarations were echoed by the Ugandan State Minister for International Relations, Henry Okello Oryem, who claimed that his country had no agreement with Israel to accept African refugees expelled from the country.

Someone, obviously, is not telling the truth. Whether the misleading information is coming from within the Israeli government or whether it is emanating from ruling circles in Rwanda and Uganda, there is little doubt that Israel and these two African states — whose presidents have been wooed extensively by the prime minister himself — are on a potential collision course. Israel is now faced with either backing down on the deportation policy or running afoul of two key African leaders whose friendship it has gone out of its way to cultivate.

This conundrum has become magnified in recent days, following the publication of Donald Trump’s harangue against African, along with some Latin American states and Haiti, in the context of American immigration policies: “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries coming here?” The uproar that ensued in the United States and Europe has paled in comparison to the reactions emanating from Africa. In one fell swoop, the US president has succeeded in erasing centuries of condemnation of slavery and subjugation by reinforcing deep-seated prejudices against black people and the countries from which they came. Individual African leaders have deplored the patently racist nature of the sentiments behind these comments; the African Union has emphatically decried their content; and anti-American feelings throughout the continent are running high. The message is clear: no people can countenance racially-based aspersions or tolerate racist remarks whatever their source.

Official Israel, although by no means many of its citizens, has been unusually silent on the matter. At this time and in this context, its policy of dumping African asylum-seekers in what the prime minister’s closest ally, Donald Trump, describes in the most unconscionable terms, cannot but boomerang. No amount of effort invested by well-meaning Israelis on the continent can in any way justify these actions. Nor can additional plans for development cooperation compensate for Israel’s less than vocal response to the egregious attack on Africans, African history and African dignity. In this context, the government’s treatment of its African asylum-seekers is threatening to undermine its standing on the continent. Nothing is more foolish than persisting with a policy that cannot be defended, while simultaneously watching one’s position in what is unquestionably a vastly important area of the world go down the drain in the process.

For many Jews and Israelis, the plan to expel African asylum-seekers from Israel is abhorrent in and of itself. In present circumstances, it also verges on the irrational. It has invited untold condemnation of Israel, exposed the government to immense criticism at home and abroad, and is impeding — if not rolling back — recent progress in Israel-African relations. Maybe, perhaps this once, the present government will reassess its intentions and actually reverse a policy that not only flies in the face of Jewish history and values, but actually harms one of the most important foreign policy achievements of its leader. It is not too late to do so.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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