Asylum seekers in Tel Aviv displaying their UN refugee registration cards.
(Photo: Natan Dvir/Haaretz)
Imagine a persecuted minority on a boat, turned away harbor after harbor. Imagine this boat is then found at sea by an Israeli ship that welcomes everyone aboard, and gives them food and water. Miraculously a head of state then intervenes and gives the lot automatic asylum. Keep this visual, and now picture the 2,000 Africans locked in a desert detention facility when they came to learn earlier this month that instead of being released on a path to refugee status, they are being sold to an unnamed third-party nation.
This is Israel’s asylum process. It is not uniform; no precedents are in place that courts can enforce, and the only real law that counts for taking in non-nationals is the Law of Return, which accepts Jews—refugees and economic immigrants alike—only.
The boat people in the above tale are 66 Vietnamese that were given sanctuary in 1977 when Prime Minister Menachem Begin gave a directive for immediate asylum. Their success is an outlier, as Israel has approved less than 200 asylum cases since the state’s founding. But as an outlier, it is also paradigmatic of how asylum is processed, meaning that it isn’t processed at all. A decree from the Prime Minister’s office circumvented the possibility of opening a Pandora’s Box of demographic threats that could surface if Israel applied international conventions on the status of refugees. For in the background, there are 7 million Palestinians living in protracted refugee states, pounding at the box’s nails for a return enshrined in humanitarian law.
This demographic threat has effects far greater than just Israelis and Palestinians. It has consequences for today’s some 60,000 African asylum seekers who have been subject to an array of polices from deterrence to criminalization. Now Israel has announced a national solution. What will go into effect is that a third party unnamed country has agreed, and three others are negotiating, to absorb them—mostly from Eritrea and Sudan—in exchange for an undisclosed financial sum and agricultural training for the deportees.
In protest 300 Eritreans imprisoned in the Saharonim detention facility near Egypt have been on hunger strike for the past seven days.
The political asylum deal was confirmed in an affidavit earlier this month when submitted to the Knesset during a reading of a controversial detention law under scrutiny. A decision on the Anti-Infiltration Law of 2012 is expected in the coming weeks, but the appending transfer to Africa will move forward, despite the court’s verdict.
“[T]he arrangements will be implemented over a long, multiyear term,” wrote Haggai Hadas, the state negotiator for refugee relocation. Hadas has made several visits to African countries since his appointment to find a partner willing to accept funds for refugees. It’s worth pointing out that Israel’s refugee dump is now based on the Prime Minister and Immigration Minister’s office, not international norms or public oversight, and is beyond the scope of judicial review.
“What it means is that these people have a deportation order en masse,” under the title of an “infiltrator” said David Jacobus, an attorney who works with the African Refugee Development Center (ADRC). Although it has a pejorative ring the title—“infiltrator,” is Israel’s legal term for asylum seekers, and it’s not a far stretch to see how this “hate rhetoric” taped to a law was “contributory to the summer violence” in 2012, explained Jacobus. That summer, the “summer of hate,” politicians incited mobs to beat Tel Aviv’s African population, Ethiopian-Israelis included. Since then violence and rallies calling to send home refugees have been the official theme of a flurry of Knesset member supported religious holiday festivals.
More concerning is an administrative detention amendment to the infiltration law; a cornerstone of Israeli military code applied in the West Bank to jail Palestinians will be used inside of Israel against refugees. Ironically a precursor policy, the Anti-Infiltration Law of 1954 was intended to imprison enemy combatants who illegally entered the country from hostile states. Critically, the 2012 enhancement blindfolds immigration judges from discerning between refugees fleeing war, and an armed militant entering the state to harm it.
Adding to the frenzy, at the beginning of the year a border police unit was installed to monitor refugees in Tel Aviv’s Neve Sha’anan neighborhood. “There have been a lot of changes in municipal tensions in the past two months,’ said Jacobus. He continued, that the police are supported by an also new group of city inspectors that do not carry weapons, “but they have theses little booklets,” for issuing citations, an on-going harassment and financial burden for Africans whose visa status forces them into under the table jobs only. Already this unit has raided the area, notably pouring bleach over the refugee’s food last May.
History of an ureasonable path to political asylum
Before the Anti-Infiltration Law, “the rest of their policies were typified by avoidance,” said Jacobus. Those looking for sanctuary were released from detention and covered by “collective non-removal,” meaning that the state had a pending deportation order in place, but avowed it would not go into effect. But around the time the Anti-Infiltration Law went into effect, Israel ended collective non-removal for persons from the south of Sudan. Following the referendum for an independent South Sudan, in January 2012 Israel ended group protection and announced in two months time the state would deport every single person hailing from the new African country.
Unsurprisingly mistakes were made, and Africans of all background were rounded up and thrown in a detention facility. Nearly a hundred from Eritrea were arrested days before the government said they would arrest all South Sudanese who had not left the country. Another major problem is that the state’s registration often incorrectly stated a person was from South Sudan when they were really from (north) Sudan. Refugees told ARDC about unconfirmed instances where North Sudanese were deported to South Sudan, a dangerous and negligent action on the part of Israel.
Such haphazard policies for asylum are characteristic of Israel because the state has no law for refugees, except for the Law of Return. Until 2009 the United Nations ran the process for non-Jews, but when it was put under the arm of the Ministry of Interior, Israel stopped processing paperwork on refugee claims. It is well known that asylum is near impossible in Israel, but this is not because petitions were outright denied. Rather the government refuses to read the case files, and so refugees are in the terrible position of filing out paper work that end up in a back room file cabinet. More so, refugees have reported the Ministry of Interior told them not to bother with the forms and opt for “self-deportation.” Myself, I have seen in this government office asylum seekers denied appointments to file their claims.
In part, the dysfunction is simple practicality. Though hailed as a country founded by the state-less and a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, until the past decade Israel has never had a large number of asylum seekers to deal with. The first Jewish arrivals from displacement camps after World War II became citizens, exempting the need for an asylum process. Israel’s only domestic compliance with the refugee convention was the “Law of Return” – the only way “refugees” entered until the recent Ministry of Interior intervention.
For Palestinian refugees Israel forbids their return through state law. The Absentees Property Law of 1950 was a grab bag of land reform for the fledgling state, as well as the first legal definitions of who is a “Palestinian” and who is an “Israeli.” The law decided “Palestinians” were persons who could not come back, and whose property could be seized by the state. This rendered impossible under domestic code the return of refugees. In one swoop all who were exiled, or by happenstance were out of the country were blocked from citizenship, or refugee status, by the new government.
Hadera-Gedera or get out
In terms of non-Jewish refugees entering, until 2005 the numbers that came on foot for a safe haven were still nominal. But when the number of refugees catapulted to thousands, the state made a series of unsuccessful forays into refugee relocation. Briefly in 2007 Israel pushed Sudanese over the border to Egypt, known as “hot returns,” which ended with Egyptian soldiers shooting at the downtrodden. Then in 2009 the “Hadera-Gedera” plan went into effort, only to be canceled that same year.
Hadera-Gedera was Israel’s only serious attempt at internal placement of refugees, ending the dumps to central Tel Aviv. Yet it was hated by just about everyone. It had an eerie social engineering element to it as well. The idea was to move refugees from congested Tel Aviv to the north and south of the state (north of Hadera and South of Gedera). In the lead up to implementation, Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich visited refugee neighborhoods, lamenting, “That’s what they do all day… Sitting, smoking and drinking?” Hadera-Gedera was supposed to give asylum seekers opportunities loftier than “smoking and drinking” by integrating them into Israeli society
However, the plan was a fantastic failure, killed by mayors across the state that did not want large numbers of Africans moving into their cities. The mayor of Hadera was even slapped with a lawsuit for busing refugees back to Tel Aviv. Shortly after, the program ended. Since that time the only other state program to comprehensively address Israel 60,000 asylum seekers as a whole is the recently announced third-party relocation.
Still this is the second try by Israel to resettle refugees outside of its borders. In 2007 Ghana and Kenya were under consideration, but the deal never went through. Oddly, this time around Eritrea is one of the names tossed around, bringing up the issue of selling refugees to a state with its own population flight and civil strife, run by an “unhinged dictator.” By comparison, the United States approves around one quarter of all refugee claims from Eritrea and the Department of Homeland Security lists Sudan and both countries as “priority” zones. And Temporary Protected Status for South Sudanese was extended despite the state’s founding – whereas Israel dumped them.
If this plan goes into effect, it will be a travesty for asylum seekers. Many trekked across multiple state lines to reach Israel, and some have been in country for over 20 years. The plan has no consideration for complicated cases such as mixed marriages or medical needs not available in the proposed host country. But overall the real issue is that third-party resettlement circumvents Israel’s obligation to the 1951 treaty. Asylum seekers need a reasonable process to access rights enshrined by international law—rights Israel helped draft in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Instead, the Jewish state has opted for legal maneuvering that ostensibly is the state-sanctioned sale of humans. Is this the bounty on not bending an inch to maintain a Jewish demographic?