Dear Mr. Netanyahu,
The announcement your office made on 2 April 2018, which was followed by a press conference to the press by yourself, about the agreement you signed with the United Nation High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), as to resettling African refugees in countries in Europe or North American was welcomed by many in the world who have spent the last few months worried about the fate of these refugees. Honouring Israel’s stated commitment to conventions which guarantee their rights was a step in the right direction.
However, the announcement made on your Facebook page, just hours later, to suspend the deal reached with the UNHCR came as a surprise. Not only does it aggravate the dire situation of thousands of refugees who find themselves in a terrible limbo, it was a further embarrassing display of a lack of respect towards the deals you and your country make. Going back and forth with derogatory language calling these African victims “migrants” and then back to “infiltrators” reflects only negatively on your leadership and mandate.
We understand that there are some 42,000 Africans in Israel. At present 37,800 people are defined by the Israeli government as “asylum seekers”; the vast majority (72%) are from Eritrea and the rest (28%) are mainly Sudanese. Most of these came to Israel prior to 2014, before the building of the border fence with Sinai. It is reported that this year, your government has ordered that asylum seekers without permits must leave Israel by April 1st, with the alternative of being sent to an undisclosed third country or face indefinite imprisonment.
You have recently made it abundantly clear that you are fundamentally opposed to Africans coming to Israel and claiming the right to “enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”, which, according to Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, should be available to all.
But the grounds on which you base your attitudes, and the language which you have been using to describe African refugees in Israel, are (to say the least) disturbing. First of all, you seem to view African Refugees in the same light as terrorists. You speak about, “Severe attacks by Sinai terrorists, and something much worse, a flood of illegal migrants from Africa”. And there seems to a deliberate policy of evoking fear of Africans in your statements: “If we don’t stop their entry, the problem that currently stands at 60,000 could grow to 600,000, and that threatens our existence as a Jewish and democratic state. This phenomenon is very grave and threatens the social fabric of society, our national security and our national identity.” Your comments that migrants are worse than terrorists only shames your reputation as a person entrusted with important responsibilities.
So, what is the real danger? How many African “infiltrators” (as your government calls them) have “flooded” into Israel in the last few years? Nearly all the 42,000 Africans (mainly Eritreans and Sudanese) living in Israel entered before 2014. Most arrived between 2006 and 2012. Since the erection of the border fence in 2014, only a handful have entered Israel from Africa: in 2016, only 18, in 2017, none at all. There is no danger whatsoever of a “flood”; this is simply rhetoric designed to instill fear of Africans.
Your interior minister, Eli Yishai, has said that most migrants are involved in criminal activity. “I want everyone to be able to walk the streets without fear or trepidation”, he said. Media reports of rising crime, including two gang rapes, in southern Tel Aviv, where many African migrants are concentrated, have been blamed on African “migrants”. But if we listen to the Israeli police, this picture is seen to be a distortion. According to police data, the crime rate among foreigners in Israel was 2.04%, compared with 4.99% among Israelis. Micky Rosenfeld, spokesman for the Israeli police, said “the overall crime rate in Israel has fallen;” the refugee community “needs to be supported in order to prevent economic and social problems.” And Yohanan Danino, the Israeli police chief, has said that African migrants should be permitted to work to discourage petty crime.
The major error in treating Eritrean refugees as “economic migrants” is in the misunderstanding of the Eritrean National Service and the oppressive and cruel regime in Eritrea. Those escaping military conscription in Eritrea must not be considered as “deserters”. All adult Eritreans citizens under the age of 50 are forced to enlist in military service. Formally, such National Service is supposed to last for only 18 months. In practice, conscription continues indefinitely. Those who joined National Service in 1994, when it was first introduced, are still in National Service although Eritrea is not at war. This also mean that most “soldiers” essentially find themselves as detainees paid as little as 10 dollars a month to do a range of backbreaking work, such as mining, construction, farming, or road making. This is a kind of slave labour. Conditions are extremely harsh. Physical abuse and torture are common as are the sexual favours for officers expected of female conscripts. In practice, the local military commanders arbitrarily control and bar soldiers’ release from military service. Young people who find themselves in the army cannot study, cannot plan a future, cannot enjoy the most minimal of human liberties. It is little wonder that thousands try to escape each year. This attempt to escape cannot rightly be classed as “desertion” from military service. The asylum claims of these escapees from the slave labour of National Service must be listened to and they should be regarded as genuine refugees, not “migrant” or “infiltrators”.
In an interview with the BBC on April 3rd 2018, Sharren Haskel, a member of your party and the Knesset said “We’re looking at probably [sending] them to a third country with a specific agreement…” when asked by the interviewer if that meant Uganda and Rwanda as was rumoured she replied “Yes, well hopefully this will still be on the table, otherwise we will have to find another country that will be able to accept them”. The secrecy around the intended destination is not necessary, your government should stop using refugees as bargaining chips in political manoeuvres as there is no real solution other than to respect their full rights as asylum seekers with protection needs.
The offer being made to African asylum-seekers in Israel appears to be forced or financially-induced removal to the supposedly “safe” third countries of Rwanda or Uganda, or unending imprisonment in Israel. May we respectfully point out how unsafe these two countries are for asylum-seekers from Eritrea or Sudan. Rwanda is not a safe place. All the evidence indicates that anyone expelled from Israel to Rwanda will find himself/herself there without status and without rights, exposed to threats, kidnappings, torture and trafficking. To pretend that, simply by offering them financial incentives and advanced plane tickets to Rwanda or Uganda, the fears of Eritrean refugees will evaporate, is hardly true or just; the supposed safe prospects for them in their new friendly host countries can in no way be guaranteed. Has no one in Israel ever heard of the kidnapping and forcible return of an Israeli citizen by the Israeli secret service? And are the Eritrean secret police so scrupulous and legally correct that they would never contemplate just such a kidnapping of an Eritrean refugee in a neighbouring country?
In light of the above, we must appeal to you to:
- reconsider the agreement that you have signed with the UNHCR to find a lasting solution to the Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers who have been languishing in Israel;
- review your policies towards African asylum-seekers in your country, as your most senior courts have reviewed this policy and found it lacking legality, compassion and sympathy;
- release the 280 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers whom you have detained in Saharonim for refusing to go to Rwanda.
The forced removal to Rwanda or Uganda or to other countries is neither just or safe for them, and an abuse of their vulnerable position as unjust as the permanent imprisonment they are threatened with if they do not comply.
Yours very sincerely,
Human Rights Concern Eritrea