The country that shall not be named

Deporting Africans to somewhere in Africa reflects a disdain that is rooted in racism
Detained African migrants standing outside the Holot detention center, located in Israel's southern Negev desert near the Egyptian border, February 4, 2018. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP)
Detained African migrants standing outside the Holot detention center, located in Israel's southern Negev desert near the Egyptian border, February 4, 2018. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP)

The Israeli government’s plan to deport 38,000 asylum seekers from Israel is one of the more reprehensible decisions taken by any government in the history of Israel, but it has one silver lining. The deportation has given rise to a mass movement of resistance within Israeli society. Demonstrations, petitions, letters and social media campaigns have been launched by an unprecedented number of volunteer organisations, professional associations, community groups, and individuals from all walks of life. Holocaust survivors, students, pilots, teachers, rabbis, youth groups, academics and doctors have all added their voices to the opposition to the plan. The international media has covered the decision and its resisters, and headlines exposing Israel’s offer to pay Rwanda for taking in deported refugees have caused some embarrassment for officials. The clearest evidence of how effective this pressure has been can be seen in Rwanda’s vehement denials that it will take in those forced out of Israel against their will.

Publicly, the Israeli government insists that the plan is moving forward on schedule, and beginning in April, thousands of asylum seekers will be sent to an “African” country that has agreed to accept them. But the shroud of secrecy surrounding the name of this “African” country makes it clear that the public outcry has created some obstacles for its implementation. Israeli officials are attempting to bypass the mass opposition that will come to bear on the country revealed as the buyer of Israel’s refugees by demanding that asylum seekers consent to deportation to a country that shall not (yet) be named.

But the opposition can not take all the credit for the cryptic “Notice on the arrangement of your departure from Israel to a safe third country” that is currently being issued to asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan in Israel. Israeli officials drew upon their own ignorance, cynicism, and racism in composing this document. Both the notice and the deportation plan itself are rooted in the belief that there are too many black people living in the Jewish State, and these black people should go live in any country that has lots of other black people living in it. Never mind that Eritrea and Sudan are not Rwanda and Uganda. When sending asylum seekers on a plane to Africa, Minister of the Interior Aryeh Deri explained, we are simply returning them home. Complete indifference for the vast cultural, social and geographic differences that distinguish between each of these African countries is at the root of this Israeli policy. A deep and racist disdain for Africa and Africans is what enables Israeli officials to offer deportees a plane ticket to Country X in Africa.

In the short term, the strategy of secrecy has its merits, as the opposition can not effectively protest the policies of the country that shall not be named. The opposition is therefore in somewhat of a limbo, as we await news of where deportees will be sent. Speculation remains high and rumors abound. Some say that the mysterious third country is Uganda, while others claim it is Kenya, and still others speculate that Tanzania has struck a deal. The deportation notices served this week would lead many to believe that Rwanda is still the designated “third country.” Rwanda’s denials notwithstanding, the Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo left Rwanda with a loophole when she claimed that Rwanda would take those “willing” to come.

It’s possible that Netanyahu’s government will use the signed deportation forms as evidence of consent. The obvious problem with this claim is that deportees can only consent to be deported to a country that has a name. The Population and Immigration Authority has gone to great lengths to make this country sound appealing. The notices paint a rosy picture of a country that “has developed tremendously” over the last decade and “has been showing some of the highest economic growth figures in Africa.” As enticing as this depiction may be, it is unreasonable to assume that deportees will consent to being sent to the country that shall not be named, particularly since they do not come from there.

The secrecy surrounding the “African” country to which asylum seekers will be deported can’t last forever. Airplanes that take off from Israel with deported asylum seekers will eventually have to land somewhere. The opposition remains ready and determined to apply unrelenting pressure on whatever country is revealed to be Netanyahu’s partner in this gross violation of human rights.

Yet whatever the fate of the deportation plan, a deeper and even more troubling reality remains. That is the mix of ignorance, cynicism and racism that gave birth to the country that shall not be named. This will undoubtedly prove far more difficult to combat than the deportation itself.

About the Author
Lynn Schler is a Professor of African Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. She is the author of several books and articles on African history and politics.