Asylum seekers’ deportations: Critics say that Israel has forgotten its past

Last Sunday, the Israeli Immigration and Population Authority began issuing deportation notices to asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan. How has this situation evolved? This article describes the current state of play in Israel, giving background information to shed light on how things have escalated.

The Israeli government led by Netanyahu are arguing that Tel Aviv has been overrun by ‘illegal infiltrators’ (mainly Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers) that are largely responsible for poverty and crime in the southern part of the city. The choice that the state has offered to these people is prison or “voluntary “deportation.  Those who agree to leave will be given $3,500 – this sum will decrease after 1 April – and there are claims that they will then be sent to Rwanda or Uganda under secret agreements, although both the countries have denied that any such agreement has taken place. Israel has refused to disclose the details of their agreements, but human rights organizations have collected the parts of the puzzle by tracking individuals who have already left for these countries. The UNHCR has reported that only a very small number of people that left for Rwanda has actually received protection upon arrival. More often, they have been exposed to robbery, coercion and violence and many have been trafficked out of the country against their will. Some ended up in Libya and, in some cases, were captured by ISIS or were caught up in the recent slave auctions. Others drowned in the Mediterranean Sea.

Netanyahu has spoken of the “plight of the long-time residents” of Tel Aviv and said his deportation plan is aimed at “restoring quiet – the sense of personal security and law and order to the residents of south Tel Aviv, and also those of many other neighborhoods”. He has accused the likes of George Soros for allegedly supporting the asylum seekers through sponsoring their protests.

A brief background
The threat of deportation for the asylum seekers in Israel has been ongoing for years. Eritreans and Sudanese asylum seekers have been arriving in the country since 2008.They were accommodated to Levinsky Park, an area in the South Tel Aviv neighborhood. Not having anywhere to go, they started sleeping in the park, while others found apartments nearby.

In 2002 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, Israel’s Ministry of Interior has systematically blocked asylum seekers from having their individual cases reviewed. The asylum seekers therefore were unable to find work or education, or apply for citizenship. Many were rounded up in recent years to be brought to the open detention centre Holot, in the middle of the desert. This was seen asstrong coercion for asylum seekers to sign ‘voluntary’ deportation agreements.

Israel’s civil society organisations tried to fill the gaps regarding healthcare and legal services. The local residents felt abandoned; it was the asylum seekers that became the scapegoats. The Israelis blamed them for residing in the neighborhood, having to resort to illegal work and living.

This local anger has turned to violence.To name three instances: in 2012 four houses of asylum seekers and one kindergarten serving asylum seekers’ 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. Many other examples can be given.

The State’s reactions
The first steps that the Israeli government took were to block the peoples’ asylum claims, to deny the asylum seekers’ access to public health care, to inflate their taxes to as high as 14% while forcibly taking an additional 20% monthly deposit out of their wages and putting it in closed bank accounts which they could only reach if they agreed to leave the country. Furthermore, the government blocked them from renting apartments outside of the South Tel Aviv neighborhood, forced them to renew their visas every 2 weeks to 2 months, denied single mothers’ access to welfare services, and forcibly imprisoned single adult men.

Family reunification was an option for some, but the criteria to be reunified with a family member can be met by only a small number of individuals; somehave used private sponsorship programs to leave to Canada, but the quotas set the number of people that can leave per year at about 2,000, meaning it would take years to move everyone from Israel using this process.

Now the situation has escalated, with the renewed intent of the government to remove around 35.000 people in total.

Reactions to the deportations
There have been a number of reactions against the Israeli PM’s actions. Last week, Susan Silverman, a Jerusalem rabbi, started a campaign to askIsraelis to hide African asylum seekers facing deportation in their homes,comparing their situation to that of Jewish second World War victim Anne Frank. Pilots for El Al, the Israeli airline, have called for a boycott of deportation flights, although the company said it has not been required to fly refugees, according to Haaretz. More than 850 rabbis and cantors, mostly outside of Israel, have signed a petition opposing the removals. In January, the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish NGO, and HIAS, a network of attorneys (both are based in the US), wrote a letter to Netanyahu testifying to the hardships that deported refugees will likely face if they are sent back to Africa.  Οn Wednesday, there will be protests in Tel Aviv, Paris, Geneva, Berlin, London, Stockholm, Chicago, San Francisco and New York.