(The Times of Israel, Irwin Cotler, February 8, 2018) Israel is home to nearly 40,000 African asylum seekers and migrants – of whom some 72 percent are Eritrean and 20 percent Sudanese – some of whom began to arrive as early as 2005. At the time, asylum seekers from these two countries – both of which are dictatorships that brutally repress their populations and violate their human rights – began to arrive in Canada.
As a Canadian member of Parliament, I chaired the All-Party Save Darfur Parliamentary Coalition, founded in 2003, where we documented the Darfurian genocide and the subsequent ethnic cleansing and mass atrocities perpetrated by the Khartoum regime, and where most Darfurians from this killing field received asylum in Canada.
I write as the Israeli authorities have begun handing out deportation notices pursuant to the government’s “Infiltration Law” adopted by the Israeli Knesset in December, and where deportations are due to begin in March 2018. As of this writing, women, children under 18, and families — as well as Darfurians who have received protected status (some 600) — will not be deported.
When the Darfurians and Eritreans first started to arrive in 2006-8, Israel initially did the right thing in granting them temporary protected status, understanding that deportation would amount to a violation of its obligations under the International Refugee Convention, which Israel had ratified and the adoption of which it had championed in 1951.
However, as the arrivals continued to increase, with the numbers rising to a high of 2,000 per month in 2011, the apprehension grew of African asylum seekers as a security and demographic threat. The political and public discourse dramatically changed with them now characterized as “infiltrators” — “mistanenim” in Hebrew — which was as prejudicial as it was pre-judgmental in effectively predetermining a status which had yet to be determined. That rhetoric began to worsen as the numbers grew, with the “infiltrators” now being increasingly referred to as “criminals” and “predators” – and by government officials, even as a “cancer” – all designed to “make their lives miserable so that they will want to leave,” as one government minister put it at the time.
Indeed, as I testified before a Knesset committee in 2011, Israeli political leaders — who should have known better — were then engaging in ongoing incitement against asylum seekers that was designed to stigmatize, criminalize and expel, rather than evaluate and properly determine their status according to law. Moreover, the situation of asylum seekers/migrants was further mishandled from the beginning by the dispatch of them to south Tel Aviv where the infrastructure was already crumbling before their arrival – rather than any equitable dispersal around the country – and where the increasing “criminalization” of these asylum seekers only served to incite the otherwise neglected Israelis in South Tel Aviv against them. I myself have made many visits to south Tel Aviv over the years, and I acknowledge and appreciate the pain and fear that besets many of these residents. But this could — and should — have been avoided by not sending the asylum seekers to South Tel Aviv to begin with, by not inciting against them, by instituting a proper refugee determination process, and by respecting — rather than restricting — their right to access employment and social services until such time as their asylum request could be properly processed — which has still yet to be done.
The completion of the construction of a wall in 2013 effectively brought an end to the “infiltration.” Indeed, not one African asylum seeker arrived in 2017, and none since May 2016. But the notion that they are a security and demographic threat had been seriously embedded and still remains. Indeed, the political and public discourse characterizing them as infiltrators still remains as well, and with all its attending prejudice and predetermination. And most importantly, no fair, effective, and efficient refugee status determination process (RSD) has yet been established (I have some familiarity with such a process, as it was set up in Canada during the period where I served as Minister of Justice and attorney general, and where I then recommended it to Israel at the same time that the initial arrivals of Sudanese and Eritreans were taking place in Israel as they were in Canada.)
Regrettably, the refugee status determination system established in Israel made it unduly difficult to even make an application, took an inordinate amount of time to get an answer, and when the answer came it was invariably negative, as evidenced by the fact that only some 10 asylum seekers — nine Eritreans and one Darfurian – have received refugee status. Accordingly, of the some 40,000 African asylum seekers, fewer than 15,000 have been able to submit claims since the RSD process began (since 2011-2012). Of the 15,000 claims presented, fewer than a third have actually been reviewed, and the 10 asylum seekers who have been recognized as refugees were so recognized only after a long and protracted battle in Israel’s courts. In a word, this statistic represents the lowest number of asylum seekers recognized as refugees in the Western world. Again, to compare Israel with the same Western demographic: 97 percent of Eritrean asylum seekers who applied for a refugee status in Canada received it, and the European Union has recognized asylum claims from 90 percent of Eritreans who applied for refugee status. The Israeli acceptance rate is 0.056%.
In addition to the unjust and unfair refugee determination process, the Israeli government has taken a series of ever-increasing measures to make the lives of African Asylum seekers/migrants in Israel harsh and difficult. It is particularly alarming that in this context:
- No rights (social, labour, health) accompany African visa holders in Israel;
- Though African migrants are not officially forbidden from working, the mention on their visa that “this is not a work permit” makes their employment situation unstable and often precarious, even as many are working in restaurants, construction, and cleaning positions that are helpful for Israelis and the Israeli economy;
- A deposit law that came into effect in May 19, 2017 makes the situation of the African Asylum seeker/migrant all the more challenging, because 20% of their already meager salaries are seized by the government — returnable to them only when they leave — while also obliging their Israeli employers to pay an extra 16% of taxes, even if they employ 2 A5 (humanitarian) visa holders;
- As of 2012-2013, Israel had declared it had negotiated removal agreements with two African countries. Those who agreed to leave Israel voluntary for these countries (commonly known to be Uganda and Rwanda) were given $3,500, and Israel will reportedly pay $5,000 to the receiving government;
- While Israeli authorities report that receiving governments have committed to providing African migrants arriving from Israel with protective status while facilitating their integration, researchers and witness testimony as well as my own examination have shown that the receiving countries have provided neither status nor protection for the African migrants arriving from Israel. Indeed, most of the Africans have had to leave, and many have suffered abuse and worse in their attempts to seek safety and security elsewhere.
This is what should — and can — be done:
- Suspend, if not repeal, the planned forced deportation/imprisonment protocol of the Israeli government as set forth in the amendment of the “Infiltration Law” adopted in December 2017 — embodied now in the deportation notices sent this week to African asylum seekers/migrants, and which 25 distinguished Israeli legal experts have now characterized as a violation of international law and basic human rights.
- Recognize the dangers involved in deporting refugees to a country like Rwanda, under conditions that are kept secret, where there is no official guarantee of safety and integration, and where manifold reports detail the danger and risks inherent in such deportations.
- Establish a just, fair, and effective refugee status determination process so that refugee claims can be made to begin with, processed in a timely and fair manner, and where just determination can be made in accordance with international standards.
- Provide asylum seekers awaiting the processing of their asylum requests a temporary protected status that ensures a minimal safety, stability and dignity (including the possibility to work legally and gainfully) and protection against arbitrary arrest and imprisonment.
- Provide a protected status to some 6,000 non-Arab Darfurians as recommended in a legal opinion written by the refugee status determination unit itself three years ago, but never acted upon.
- Ensure minimal standards for children and youths — in terms of access to education, health and welfare — while ensuring protection against their deportation.
- Cease and desist from the ongoing campaign of incitement against, and defamation of, Africans in Israel. Simply put, end the discourse re “infiltrators,” end the incitement that scapegoats them as dangerous predators who are responsible for all that ails South Tel Aviv, and cease and desist from any political or electoral manipulation of both the vulnerable South Tel Aviv residents and this vulnerable African constituency.
- Respect the independent plight of South Tel Aviv neighbourhoods and seek to rehabilitate them. As African scholar Sheldon Gellar has put it, “money now used to finance prisons, detention centers, and deportation logistics and payoffs can be reallocated to fight crime, improve housing, infrastructure, and public services in south Tel Aviv. This policy would provide some compensation to south Tel Aviv residents for the burden caused by placing large numbers of African asylum-seekers in their neighborhoods without a plan and against their will.”
- Ensure proper access to services in cities outside of Tel Aviv, and in Israel’s periphery, and reinforce migrant communities all over Israel (through local involvement, community organizations, local volunteering opportunities on behalf of migrants), especially in cities like Eilat, Beersheva, Haifa, Petah Tikva, etc., where important refugee communities already reside.
- Engage constructively with the UNHCR, which has had a standing offer to work with Israel to resettle asylum seekers, and which is prepared to facilitate the resettlement of upwards of some 10,000 of them. If Israel engages in a policy of resettlement to third countries, it needs to ensure that such resettlement is to countries where asylum seekers will be treated with dignity and where they will be guaranteed status, stability, well-being, and dignity (for example, in a country like Canada, where the Jewish communities would play a role in sponsoring, welcoming and integrating refugee families).
- Appreciate the asset that the African Asylum seekers/migrants can be for the Israeli government and society in matters of diplomacy and the economy, as well as a bridgehead to Africa.
- Stop punishing employers who hire African asylum seekers. Indeed, the current policy exacerbates labour shortages and necessitates bringing in more foreign workers to fill the gap. The policy is especially harmful to hotels, restaurants, and the tourist industry.
- Develop an immigration policy, that is anchored in the values of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, protecting Israel’s security while respecting the values of respecting the stranger, which is referenced some 36 times in the Bible.
In short, what is so necessary now is for the Knesset and government to change the prejudicial discourse, to cease and desist from any incitement, and to put in place a proper refugee status determination system as befits a democracy like Israel, and even more so, as befits a country whose ethics and ethos effectively command us to respect the stranger, let alone not to persecute them. There is no contradiction, as it has sometimes been suggested, between Zionism and human rights and between Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. It is bad policy and bad proclamations that create false dichotomies. A Jewish and democratic state — which Israel is — can address and redress these problems, thereby reflecting and representing the best of Jewish tradition and Israeli democracy.