Will Israel be remembered on the wrong side of history?

Eritrean asylum seekers protest against their imprisonment in 2014

When I first heard about the African asylum seekers in Israel four years ago, I imagined that as a nation built by refugees, Israel would be a safe haven. After all, as an Israeli-American, I owe my very existence to the fact that my family was granted refuge outside their home. I was raised to believe that Jewish values dictated caring for others and fighting for the rights of my neighbors. But to my dismay I found Israel’s refugee policy to be a racially biased system operating in stark contrast to international humanitarian standards and to my own Jewish values. I therefore spent the last 4 years working to become an ally for this persecuted and marginalized community.

Now the situation has become dire as Israel prepares to deport tens of thousands of asylum seekers. People in Israel and around the world are beginning to take notice, and many are left are wondering how we got to this point and what lies ahead. There are a few key points which must be understood in order to grasp the legal, rational and moral reasons why Israel should strive to better accommodate these asylum seekers. By understanding these perspectives it becomes clear that there is a right and a wrong path for Israel to take, and that we are currently barreling down the wrong path.

To understand the legal issue with Israel’s deportations, it is important to first define the term “refugee.” According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, this refers to a person who was forced to flee his or her home country because of persecution, war or violence. It describes someone who has a well-founded fear of persecution based on his or her religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership to a particular social group. It also describes a person who cannot or will not return home because they are afraid to do so. He or she may have experienced violence, wrongful imprisonment or sexual violence, or saw this happening to others and became deeply afraid. However, the most important criteria to be a refugee is to be legally recognized as such by the host country, or the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). If a person has come to a country searching for protection but has not yet been legally recognized as a refugee, then he or she is considered an asylum seeker.

Eritrean asylum seekers at the Eritrean Women’s Community Center in Tel Aviv get help from volunteers to fill out their asylum applications since the forms can only be completed in Hebrew, English or Arabic.

There are about 35,000 African asylum seekers in Israel today: 27,000 from Eritrea, 6,000 from Sudan, and the rest from various Eastern and Central African countries. The  total number peaked at 64,000 in 2012, just before the state of Israel closed off the border with Sinai and stifled the flow of people entering the country. Since then, the numbers have steadily declined. Out of that 64,000, 10 people have been granted refugee status. Not 10%, but 10 people. This is compared to an international recognition rate of over 60% for Sudanese asylum seekers and over 80% for Eritreans, peaking at numbers as high as 97% in parts of Europe. Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers are granted protection at very high rates because they are truly in need. Sudan’s regime is waging war on its own people and committing acts of genocide against African tribes in the Darfur region in the west of the country; and because Eritrea’s dictator government controls its people with an iron fist using livelong slavery in the military, a level of censorship rivaled only by North Korea, and a massive network of underground prisons defined by their torture, rape and death.

Why is there such a large disconnect between Israel’s refugee recognition rate and that of the rest of the world? Can it be that Israel somehow received all the “fake” asylum seekers and the real ones went to Europe?

That’s unlikely, since the human smuggling routes they traveled through and the time period in which they left matched with others who received recognition and legal protection in Europe. The entirety of Eastern, Central and North Africa is covered in a web that forms an extensive smuggling network. These legs generally formed where existing trade routes for weapons and other goods emerged. In 2008, a weapons trade route from Sudan to Gaza lead to the formation of a human smuggling route. Other routes branched off from the same legs, leading to Libya instead. When someone would flee from their home in the night on foot, they would cross the first border out of their home country on their own and make their way to a refugee camp. Once they reached the camp, they came into contact with smugglers who would accept $3,500 USD to transport them to their next country. The route decision was sometimes chosen by the smuggler, sometimes by the individual. Often, routes would change on short notice due to political uprisings and wars that broke out in the region. Therefore, sometimes people would intend to go to Libya to brave the Mediterranean Sea but due to unforeseen circumstances would be re-routed to Israel against their will.

Human trafficking routes across the African continent

Those Eritrean people who were the most unfortunate were coerced or kidnapped into the hands of vicious human traffickers coming from the Rashaida Bedouin tribe. These traffickers took their captives to the Sinai desert where they were held for months in underground torture camps. The victims would be bound and beaten, electrocuted, have burning plastic dripped on their flesh, and women would be raped repeatedly, sometimes developing fistulas or becoming pregnant from their captors. In order to make a profit, the traffickers would give those held captive a mobile phone used to call their loved ones abroad and beg for help. If the loved ones could put enough money together to pay for their release, usually between $10,000 to $30,000, they would be released along the border of Israel. Those who could not collect the money would be killed and their organs would be harvested for the black market. Out of the 27,000 Eritrean refugees in Israel about 1 in 4 are a survivor of the Sinai torture camps.

We can therefore see that we are dealing with the same demographic of people who are receiving refugee protections in Europe, but with an additional need for safety and healing due to the unimaginably harsh journey they faced. Why are they not receiving refugee status in Israel?

This is because Israel’s Ministry of Interior, under the direction of high ranking officials which include Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has refused to properly review claims for asylum. In 2009 Israel removed the UNHCR from the role of checking asylum claims and took that role upon their own Ministry of Interior, as each sovereign nation has the right to do. However, while the UNHCR’s mission is to impartially review each individual claim for asylum, Israel’s Ministry of Interior has systematically blocked asylum seekers from having their individual cases reviewed. This is because the government ultimately aimed to coerce people to “voluntarily” deport themselves.

Blocking asylum claims is one way in which this is done, and other methods include denying access to public health care, inflating asylum seekers’ taxes to as high as 14%, forcibly taking an additional 20% monthly deposit out of asylum seekers’ wages and putting it in an untouchable bank account which they can only reach if they agree to leave the country, blocking asylum seekers from renting apartments outside of the South Tel Aviv neighborhood, forcing asylum seekers to renew their visas every 2 weeks to 2 months, denying single mothers access to welfare services, and the forcible imprisonment of single adult men in a facility called Holot in the desert along the border with Egypt.

An Eritrean man imprisoned in the Holot facility

If Israel wants asylum seekers to leave the country, and life in Israel is so challenging for asylum seekers, why don’t they just leave?

Well, most would if there was a safe way for them to do so. If you ask 100 asylum seekers in Israel if they want to return home one day, 100 people will tell you yes. This is a dream which they will never abandon. Of course, practically this is impossible right now since these countries are still as unsafe as the day the asylum seekers fled. So, they are instead trying to reach other safe havens such as Europe, Canada, the United State, Australia, etc. Internationally, the most common way a refugee reaches a safe country is through resettlement through the UNHCR. However, by refusing to grant people legal status, Israel has directly blocked them from being resettled because this is only available to recognized refugees.

The next option to leave Israel is family reunification to join a spouse, child or elderly parent who reaches a Western country and receives protection. However, it is still a small number of individuals who meet the criteria to be reunified with a family member. Many have already left for Canada using private sponsorship programs, but the quotas cap the number of people who can leave per year at about 2,000 which means it will take years to move everyone from Israel using this process.

Instead of opening channels for resettlement or facilitating sponsorship agreements with more Western countries, Israel has instead opted for shady deals with third party African countries such as Uganda and Rwanda. The state has refused to disclose the details of their agreements, but human rights organizations have pieced together parts of the puzzle by tracking individuals who have already left for these countries. According to the UNHCR, only a handful of the thousands that left for Rwanda actually received protection upon arrival. More often, they were exposed to robbery, coercion and violence and many were trafficked out of the country against their will. Some ended up in Libya, and in some cases, were captured by ISIS or caught in the recent slave auctions. Others drowned in the Mediterranean Sea.

Tesfay Kidane, an Eritrean asylum seeker who left from Israel under the “voluntary” return policy, was denied a residence permit upon his arrival and was trafficked to Libya where he was captured and killed by ISIS

Why does Israel want these people to leave so badly that they are willing to risk the lives of these innocent human beings?

The short answer is deep-rooted racism, but there are complexities which are important to discuss. When asylum seekers first began arriving in Israel in 2008, they were processed in a facility along the border and then given a bus ticket to Levinsky Park in the South Tel Aviv neighborhood. Because they had nowhere else to go, many began to sleep in the park. As they began to make friends and build community networks, they were able to find nearby apartments and helping their friends to do the same. Since the neighborhood was already low-income, asylum seekers could not afford to go elsewhere since they were barely scraping by as day laborers and had not yet begun to find steady work.

Without protection from the state, civil society began to fill in gaps as Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) opened to provide legal aid and health services to the asylum seekers. Unfortunately, as this occurred the government did not step in to provide additional support or infrastructure development for the neighborhood. As a result, the local residents saw the small piece of pie they had been given being divided up by more people than ever before, and they saw NGOs coming to the aid of the asylum seekers rather than helping the Israelis who already lived there. This was extremely painful, and the locals began to feel they had been abandoned by their own government.

However, instead of holding the authorities responsible for lifting up the neighborhood as a whole, the asylum seekers became a scapegoat for their frustrations. They blamed the asylum seekers for coming to the neighborhood, instead of blaming the government for failing them. They ignored the fact that the government’s refusal to give them refugee status trapped them in the neighborhood because they so heavily relied on NGOs for services. They claimed that the asylum seekers brought crime, even though this claim is unsubstantiated. They saw people with dark skin in their neighborhood and began to feel afraid, and instead of facing their own internal racial biases they lashed out at their neighbors. In 2012 four houses of asylum seekers and one kindergarten serving asylum seeking children were attacked with Molotov cocktails and burned down; in 2014 an Eritrean baby was stabbed in the head by an Israeli; in 2016 an asylum seeker was beaten to death.

Eritrean asylum seekers protest in front of the Rwandan embassy

Now Israel plans to begin forcibly deporting refugees. It is unclear if this will take the form of indefinite imprisonment for those who refuse to leave, or if the Ministry of Interior will send officers into the streets to hunt down asylum seekers and take them to airplanes in handcuffs. Both options have been offered by Israeli authorities for those asylum seekers who do not leave the country by the end of March.

Some will tell you that Israel cannot let these asylum seekers stay because we are a small country with limited resources. However, the asylum seekers have been here for 10 years already without taking any funds from the government. They are tax-paying, law abiding and self-reliant. They contribute to the Israeli economy and even fill vital jobs that Israelis are not interested in taking.

Some will say that we should not help asylum seekers because of the demographic threat to the country. We cannot have open borders because then everyone from Africa will flood the country and the Jewish character of the state will be threatened. However, the border is already closed and nobody new is entering the country through the Sinai. This has been the case since 2012. Those who are here make up 0.5% of Israel’s population, and this is hardly a demographic threat. It is also important to note that only those non-Jewish people from African countries are being targeted. The 22,000 asylum seekers from Ukraine and Georgia who have entered the country since 2014 have flown quietly under the radar, and there are 60,000 foreign caregivers and 24,000 agricultural workers being imported mainly from Asian countries and many of whom stay beyond their visas and seek to remain in Israel. These groups are equally non-Jewish, equally law-abiding and of course equally in need of rights and protection. However, Israel targets those people from Africa for the most inhumane of treatment. The only explanation for this is skin color.

Others will tell you that asylum seekers from Africa came into the country illegally, and because of this they must be legally punished. Of course, this is in stark contrast to refugee laws around the world. Obviously, those who flee from their homes under the cover of darkness and run across the border to freedom while their own country’s army shoots to kill do not have the chance to stop at the embassy and apply for a visa. Countries around the world including the United States recognize this fact, and make no distinction between refugees who enter the country with a visa and then request asylum compared to those who enter the border on foot and then ask for asylum.

Eritrean women meeting at the Eritrean Women’s Community Center to discuss the needs of their community

I say that it is a legal, rational and moral obligation to treat asylum seekers with dignity and grant them their basic human rights. Legally, it is Israel’s obligation to do so because the country has signed and ratified the Refugee Convention and is obliged to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which guarantees each person’s right to seek asylum outside their home country. Rationally, the economy will suffer if these people are deported because the state will lose their tax income and work force. Restaurants who rely on asylum seekers for cooks will go out of business, the cost of eating out will skyrocket, the hotel industry will suffer because there will be a shortage of cleaners and the tourism industry as a whole will take a huge hit. Morally, a country who subscribes to the motto of “Never Again” has the moral obligation to uphold the meaning behind the words. Our people know suffering more than any other Western nation on Earth. If we inflict this same pain on others, then we must look at ourselves in the mirror and ask what have we become.

About the Author
Andrea Gagne is a U.S.-based aid worker who has worked for several years with Eritrean refugees in Israel. She has worked in multiple refugee community centers in south Tel Aviv, including the Eritrean Women’s Community Center. Andrea is a graduate of Hampshire College, has a master’s degree from Tel Aviv University, and also studied at the University of Ghana.
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