Israel to conduct mass deportation of African asylum seekers

By Ashna Butani

In December 2017, the Netanyahu government and the Knesset approved a new program that would lead to forced deportations of African immigrants in 2018. Thousands of immigrants, often known as “illegal infiltrators“, were notified of their deportation on Sunday. The country is set to deport 15,000-20,000 immigrants. In recent years, several African immigrants crossed borders to settle in Israel. The majority of immigrants were from Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan.

The Israeli government offered two choices to the immigrants: To return to their countries or go to Saharonim. Saharonim is a prison that is already filled with people. The deportations will begin in March. Women and children would not be deported in the first wave of deportation. “Every country must guard its borders“, said Prime Minister Netanyahu, while announcing this policy.

The division of Israel

This decision has torn the country into two opposing sets. Several residents of Tel Aviv are of the opinion that African immigrants are destroying the neighbourhood. They believe that the increase in crime rates is a result of immigration. The most crowded part of Tel Aviv is Neve Shaanan, a poor neighbourhood which is home to 35,000 people. Africans are responsible for 40% of the crime in the locality. A poll revealed that 2/3rd of the public support Netanyahu’s plan.

However, the controversial policy led to a wave of protests in Israel. The country was built in order to give refugees a home, and asking them to flee is precisely the opposite of Jewish ideals. After the holocaust, Israel was a safe haven for the Jews. Critics of the policy have compared that to the condition of Africans who seek asylum in Israel. 36 holocaust survivors wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, pleading for the abandonment of the policy. Seven survivors have said that they will harbour asylum seekers in their own homes.

Who are these immigrants?

Approximately 38,000 immigrants resided in Israel. 72% of them were Eritrean and 20% Sudanese. Eritrean immigrants fled from their home country in order to gain freedom from a dictatorship and a harsh military service that could last for 40 years. Sudanian people fled due to genocide and the war between Sudan and South Sudan. The majority arrived in Israel between 2006 and 2012.

The government has distinguished between refugees and immigrants. They said that they will not take any actions against refugees. Illegal immigrants are those who are in another country for the purpose of work. However, Israel has recognised the refugee status for only 1 Sudanese and 10 Eritreans. The acceptance rate is determined as 0.056%. The rest of the asylum seekers received temporary visas, that do not allow them to work.

What will happen to the immigrants?

Israel has not officially stated where the immigrants will be sent, however, it is unofficially known that they will be sent to Rwanda and Uganda. Rwanda had claimed that it will accept 10,000 immigrants from Israel. Israel will pay a compensation of $5000 for each deported migrant to the Rwandan government. They will also pay $3500 as compensation to the migrant. In the past, Uganda has taken in one million refugees from South Sudan. The public consensus is that Uganda has done enough to solve the world’s refugee crisis.

The Israeli government has promised asylum seekers that they will be granted status in Uganda. Refugees in Uganda have freedom of movement and work, which is not accepted in Rwanda. However, it is uncertain that they will be granted the status, owing to the previous influx of South Sudanese in Uganda. The immigrants have been told to cross without documents and request asylum seeker status in the new country.

Are there any alternate options?

Several Israelis and asylum seekers are requesting the government for a policy of dispersal. This policy would send the immigrant to different geographical areas, thereby releasing the tensions on Tel Aviv. Amnesty International is against the policy of forceful dispersal as it will deny health care facilities that are only available in Tel Aviv to the immigrants.

The United Nations High Commission on Refugee conducted talks with the Israeli government to send the immigrants to safe countries. The UNHRC is against the forceful deportations of immigrants to Rwanda and Uganda as they have been termed as ‘areas of concern,’ by the UN. Several asylum seekers are of the opinion that Rwanda and Uganda have nothing in store for them. They have heard of the fortunes of those who embark on dangerous journeys, in order to receive refugee status.

Thousands of migrants gathered outside the Rwandan embassy, asking its President Paul Kagame, not to cooperate. The Israeli government is indeed, torn in between two contrasting ideas: To provide a safe haven for others, or to protect its own population. With the opinion that the latter would prove more fruitful, the government is going ahead with the policy, despite its criticisms.

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