Opinion

Israel violates international norms over African refugees

Asylum seekers from East Africa deserve fair treatment

December 17, 2013 9:30AM ET
African migrants on a highway near Beer Sheva, walking to Jerusalem in protest after abandoning a detention facility in the Negev Desert, Dec. 16, 2013.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Today Israeli immigration officers forcibly removed more than 200 African asylum seekers from outside the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, who showed up to protest their forced detention. The protesters, refugees from east Africa, had marched from an indefinite-detention facility in the Negev Desert, a two-day journey by foot. They will reportedly be jailed for up to three months before being returned to detention.

Tensions began on Dec. 10, when the Knesset passed an amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law, which authorized the detention without trial of approximately 55,000 Africans currently living in Israel. On Dec. 12, Israeli prison officials began transferring Africans from the Saharonim prison to the brand-new Holot facility, which is still under construction only a few hundred meters away in southern Israel. Once the first 1,000 beds are filled with Africans from Saharonim, the government plans to move another 2,000 Africans now in Tel Aviv to the detention center.

Last week’s amendment was rushed through committee to replace the January 2012 amendment that authorized the incarceration of asylum seekers for up to three years. In September, Israel's Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the legislation violated Israel's quasi-constitutional Basic Laws. In order to avoid another judicial rebuke, the government is contending that the newly built detention facilities are not jails because they permit two daytime furloughs of a few hours each.

After only one weekend at the new facility, many of the asylum seekers who were transferred did not see it the same way. On Dec. 15, the African migrants left the complex and set off toward Jerusalem to demand freedom and refugee rights. They said there are no significant differences between the old jail and the new one. Of those who remained behind bars, most have gone on a hunger strike.

The asylum seekers’ demands — to have their applications for refugee status considered and to be allowed to live freely without major restrictions while they are under review — are supported by international law. But Israel wants them all gone, regardless of the persecution they experienced before entering the country and their stated fear of being returned to their countries of origin, because they are not Jews.

The Israeli government has shown itself willing to make a mockery of international agreements and to mistreat long-suffering refugees whose only crime is not being born Jewish. If the world accepts the Israeli government’s demand that the state have a Jewish ethno-religious character, they will enable Israel’s flouting of international norms and green-lighting all of these abuses as well as the many more that will inevitably follow.

Roots of the crisis

The detention of the Africans on its soil was not the government’s preferred solution. As the high court deliberated about what to do with the migrants, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed an envoy to negotiate with a number of African countries, hoping to persuade them to take in the asylum seekers in exchange for money, agricultural technology, weapons and military training. To Netanyahu's chagrin, no African nation agreed to the terms.

By forbidding most asylum seekers to work and criminalizing wiring money out of the country, the government hoped that migrants who arrived to make money more easily would give up and go home. By imprisoning asylum seekers who had not been convicted of crimes, the government sought to persuade the Africans to accept the state’s offer of $1,500 upon release if they leave the country.

The U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) protested the government’s carrot-and-stick offer to asylum seekers who were sitting in Israeli jails. Then–UNHCR head William Tall blasted the secret deal, saying repatriation from prison “can’t be considered voluntary by any criterion. It is explicitly not voluntary return.” He added that most Africans in Israel “don’t receive full access to the refugee apparatus, and when there’s no access to the refugee apparatus that can lead to their release, then there is no voluntary return.”

So far, about 1,500 asylum seekers have left the country in this manner. The government now hopes that others will follow after it increased the fee for self-deporting to $3,500 last month. Unless the detention center is expanded — there are no plans to do so at present — its maximum capacity is only about 10,000 people. Even if every bed in the facility were filled, that would leave more than 40,000 asylum seekers living among Israelis.

These asylum seekers from Africa constitute the first large group of immigrants to Israel who are not Jews.

International obligations

A careful analysis of the asylum crisis shows that Israel is not meeting its international obligations in the treatment of refugees.

About 85 percent of the asylum seekers in Israel are from Eritrea and Sudan, two countries with human-rights records so abominable that even the Israeli government is loath to force those who fled to return. The other 15 percent arrive from African countries further afield, such as the Congo and the Central African Republic. But of the African asylum seekers living in Israel, only a tiny fraction, less than 0.2 percent, have received refugee status.

In every one of these countries, there exist serious threats to physical safety and political freedom. Not every person who hails from these countries is automatically accepted as a refugee, however. State signatories to the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees — 145 countries, including Israel — may review each applicant’s case on an individual basis. However, the convention states that people cannot be punished for entering a country without permission if they did so to escape persecution in the country of origin and if they present themselves to the relevant authorities without delay. Thus Israel is violating international norms by detaining asylum seekers fleeing genuine persecution.

To enter Israel, refugees from eastern Africa pass through Egypt, the only African country that shares a border with Israel. Until last year, the desert border between the two nations was easily passable by foot. To cut off this method of entry, the Israeli government authorized the construction of a fence running the length of the border, and it was completed earlier this year. Since then, the number of asylum seekers entering the country has been reduced to a trickle.

The Egyptian passage has become a source of contention as well as anger and sadness. Israelis opposed to the arrival of asylum seekers claim that the Africans cannot be refugees in Israel, that they could have been refugees only if they had remained in Egypt. Advocates for the asylum seekers say that the migrants faced persecution in Egypt, noting that Egyptian forces attacked asylum seekers in Cairo in 2006 as they protested for refugee rights, killing dozens.

The Egyptian territory that abuts Israel, the Sinai Peninsula, has become treacherous territory for foreign Africans. In recent years, gangs that smuggled asylum seekers to the Israeli border for a fee realized that they could keep the foreign Africans against their will and threaten them with torture unless their families wired ransom payments. To ensure the continuation of this source of income — $600 million in the past four years, according to European External Policy Advisors, an NGO — after Israel’s fence was finished and the number of Africans passing through the Sinai dropped sharply, the gangs began to kidnap, torture and hold for ransom Africans who had no intention of trying to reach Israel in the first place. 

Israel’s share

According to the UNHCR, 479,300 people around the world submitted refugee-status applications in 2012 — more than in any other year in the last decade. Of these applications, 355,500 were made in Europe, and 83,400 were made in the United States, the country that had the most applicants. Asylum seekers in Norway, Sweden and Switzerland account for more than 1 percent of those nations’ populations. In Israel, asylum seekers account for less than 0.5 to 1 percent of the population, similar to the figures for Greece, Belgium and Austria.

Ironically, developing nations host a far greater share of the world’s refugee population than do industrialized nations. For example, Iran and Pakistan each host over 1 million refugees, as do Jordan and Syria, two countries that border Israel. In Africa, Kenya, Chad and Ethiopia each host hundreds of thousands of refugees, and eight other African nations host over 100,000 refugees each.

As of last year, more than a quarter million people have fled Eritrea seeking asylum, and over half a million people have fled Sudan. Since 85 percent of the 55,000 African asylum seekers in Israel are from Eritrea or Sudan, that means the country has received 6 to 7 percent of the refugees who fled those two countries.

To be sure, their numbers are not insignificant, and their integration poses challenges for the government and for Israeli society. There are also about 84,000 foreign workers in Israel and some 93,000 tourists who have overstayed their visas.

Israel has absorbed millions of immigrants in the 65 years since since it was founded. Twenty-five years ago, it took in over a million people from the former Soviet Union as that empire was disintegrating. But in all those cases, the people it absorbed were Jews, loosely defined as having at least one Jewish grandparent.

Jewish people all over the world are encouraged by the government to immigrate to Israel, and they are offered attractive financial incentives to do so. As soon as they arrive in the country, they are automatically granted full citizenship, with all the benefits that entails and then some. These privileges follow from one of the first laws passed in Israel, the 1950 Law of Return.

The reason for the disparity in the treatment of Jewish immigrants and non-Jewish would-be immigrants runs to the very heart of Zionism.

Israeli society rejects asylum seekers because they’re new, they’re poor and they’re darker-skinned. But over the decades, successive waves of Jewish immigrants also encountered hostility from native Israelis because of the same prejudices. The asylum seekers from Africa constitute the first large group of immigrants to Israel who are not Jews. That is the real reason the government is trying to drive them out.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to account for the latest developments.

David Sheen is an independent journalist and film maker living in Dimona, Israel. Sheen began blogging when he first moved to Israel in 1999 and later went on to work as a reporter and editor at the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz. His full-length documentary on ecological architecture, "First Earth," was translated into a dozen languages and published by PM Press in 2010. He is currently writing a book about African immigrants to Israel and the struggles they face. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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