Jewish human rights groups are denouncing Israel’s plans to deport almost 40,000 African asylum seekers, defending refugees that Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu calls "infiltrators."
On Sunday, Netanyahu's 28-member executive cabinet voted unanimously to give African asylum seekers three months to leave the country or face deportation to an undisclosed country. If they refuse to go, they will be imprisoned indefinitely. The proposal will now be considered by the Israeli legislature where it is expected to easily pass.
“The infiltrators will have the option to be imprisoned or leave the country,” Israel’s Ministry of Public Security said in a statement. Officials also said that the mass deportations are also meant “to protect the Jewish and democratic character” of Israel.
But opponents reject the deportations as a violation of Israel’s founding principles.
“Israel’s failure to follow the Jewish imperative to protect and care for the gerim—the landless sojourners who seek refuge among us—is a far greater threat to the Jewish character of the state than is the community of African migrants and asylum seekers who have escaped forced military service, torture, and crimes against humanity in Eritrea and Sudan and sought safe haven in Israel,” Rabbi Michael Lezak, co-chairman of T’ruah, a human rights group, told Newsweek.
The Israeli government says that there are 38,043 African migrants living in the country, most of them hailing from war-torn countries such as Eritrea and South Sudan having illegally crossed the Israeli border between 2007 and 2012.
Some Israelis argue that African asylum seekers have worsened living conditions in Tel Aviv and other communities in the southern Israel.
“This is the right policy to ease the suffering of residents in south Tel Aviv and other neighborhoods where the infiltrators reside,” Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who initiated the deportation proposal, said on Sunday, according to Voice of America. “My duty is to return peace and quiet to south Tel Aviv and many neighborhoods across the country.”
But human rights advocates say the migrants deserve a fair hearing.
"Without that, they should not be removed, regardless of what the situation is in Tel Aviv,” Melanie Nezer, senior vice president for public affairs at HIAS, a Jewish humanitarian nonprofit organization that provides assistance to refugees, told Newsweek.
Nezer argued that as a signatory to the UN 1951 Refugee Convention, Israel is both legally and morally obligated to protect refugees and other persons in need of international protection.
“The Refugee Convention came about after the Holocaust because the international community wanted to make sure that something like it never happened again,” Nezer said. “As the first signatory to the convention, Israel has a responsibility to uphold its standards.”
Nezer also noted that Israel should remember its own history, as the nation was founded as a refuge for Jews who had escaped the horrors of World War II and built on the premise, "Never again."
"Israel needs to do right by these African asylum seekers," she said.
The UN High Council for Human Rights has also criticized the move, saying that Israel should be more forthright and transparent about its relocation plans.
"Due to the secrecy surrounding this policy and the lack of transparency concerning its implementation, it has been very difficult for UNHCR to follow up and systematically monitor the situation of people relocated to these African countries," the organization said in a statement. "UNHCR, however, is concerned that these persons have not found adequate safety or a durable solution to their plight and that many have subsequently attempted dangerous onward movements within Africa or to Europe."
Furthermore, Israel has restricted the freedom of asylum seekers through a series of policies aimed at encouraging self-departure, a UNCHR official said on Sunday, according to Al-Jazeera.
Critics say that Israel’s acceptance rate of asylum seekers from these nations is considerably lower than that of most developed countries; according to the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, Israel has only recognized eight Eritrean and two Sudanese asylum seekers as refugees since 2009. And, according to Al-Jazeera, "two hundred Sudanese refugees from the Darfur region were also granted humanitarian status."
Israel reportedly has agreements with Rwanda and Uganda to take in the asylum seekers that Israel wants to deport and that Israel pays up to $5,000 for each deportee taken in by the third parties.
Israel and its partner governments say that it plans to give asylum seekers the basic necessities to start their new lives in a new country.
But a 2014 investigation by Haretz found that asylum seekers who "voluntarily departed" Israel for Rwanda "arrived in the country with no status, no permits, and no path to livelihood." Furthermore, "some were directed from Rwanda to Uganda with no warning and no infrastructure in place."
The Sunday vote comes after an Israeli High Court upheld the country’s controversial practice of deporting undocumented migrants to an unnamed third country without their consent in August.
As noted by The Times of Israel, deportations to a third country are rare in the Western world. Only two other countries—Italy and Australia—have attempted to deport migrants and asylum seekers to third countries, but local courts in both countries shot down the move because it was found to be in violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
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