Israel will begin deporting 20,000 African asylum seekers, mostly from Eritrea and the Sudan, to an unnamed third-party country “without their consent,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Sunday in a cabinet meeting. According to Israeli media the refugees will be sent to Rwanda, in return for which Israel will pay the African nation $5,000 per head.
Using the term “infiltrators” to refer to Africans who crossed into Israel through the Sinai, Netanyahu said he had reached “stage three” of a plan to remove all asylum seekers.
“Regarding infiltrators, we will discuss one of the aspects of this topic at the cabinet meeting,” Netanyahu said. “Our policy towards infiltrators is three staged: Stage one is halting. We built a fence and enacted laws that completely blocked the flow of infiltrators and today we have zero infiltrators. Second stage is removal. We removed approximately 20,000 out of the existing infiltrators using various measures. Stage three is increased removal.”
The prime minister added that Israel will no longer require asylum seekers to sign a document authorizing their deportation, a controversial practice done in the past and known as “voluntary deportation,” in which Africans were sent to third-party countries Rwanda and Uganda. Refugee groups have alleged the deportations were coerced; the refugees faced imprisonment in Israel, or deportation.
“This removal is enabled thanks to an international agreement I achieved, which allows us to remove the 40,000 remaining infiltrators without their consent,” Netanyahu continued. “This is very important. It will enable us later to make the ‘Holot’ facility unnecessary and to use part of the vast resources we allocate there for inspectors and increased removal. That is why we are succeeding here. But our goal is to continue removing significantly more then what we have until now.”
Holot is a desert detention facility. At Holot asylum seekers may leave during the day, but must return by evening to be locked behind Holot’s gates. Under orders announced Sunday, the facility will be closed in the next three months. In the weeks leading up to the shut-down, the refugees say they believe they will be deported.
“For years we have been saying the Holot detention facility was not built for a proper purpose, it is meant to break the spirits of asylum seekers [and force us] to leave,” said refugee organizer Mutasim Ali from Darfur on social media. Ali is the first and only Sudanese national who was granted asylum by Israel in a surprise move in 2016. Before receiving his protective status he resided in Holot prison for one year.
The Israeli aid group Hotline for Refugees estimates of the 40,000 African asylum seekers 73 percent are from Eritrea and 19 percent are from Sudan. Those from Eritrea have fled a dictatorship where compulsory conscription is likened to forced servitude by most refugee organizations. Africans fled Sudan to escape a genocide.
Writing from Tel Aviv where the majority of African asylum seekers in Israel live, Bsow Bsow, 32, who fled Sudan for Israel in 2011, told Mondoweiss anxiety is high as Africans brace for a mass uprooting. “First, everyone is very afraid, especially the woman.”
“Today I receive too many phone calls from women asking if it’s going to be the same as when they [Israel] deported Southern Sudanese,” Bsow said, referencing the 2012-2013 deportation of 700-2,000 Africans from South Sudan, of whom 500 were children.
Those deportations were announced shortly after South Sudan was established as an independent country. Unlike South Sudan, Israel does not have diplomatic relations with Sudan or Eritrea, and is unable to land planes full of deportees on the ground in those countries. As a result, Israel negotiated the practice of third party countries accepting asylum seekers in exchange for $5,000 per person, according to Israel’s Channel 10 and Haaretz, which reported the secret agreement over the weekend.
A year after the Africans were transferred to South Sudan, the Israeli daily Maariv reported that 22, including children, had died.
Some journalists and Israeli advocates for refugees have traveled to Africa, reconnecting with deported asylum seekers. Their reports provide insight on what Africans can expect once forced to board a plane.
Orit Marom, who works for the Israeli group ASSAF, flew to Ethiopia in 2013 to locate a Sudanese family she knew. They were living in a cramped one-room apartment with relatives. She recounted for the Jerusalem Post:
“We had the fate of these children in our hands, we had the ability to take in these 500 children, and instead of deciding that they would have normal lives and the basic rights children have everywhere, we took them and we threw them to hell. We turned their world upside down, tossing them to a fate of hunger, sickness, and death.”
Three Eritreans who were deported to Rwanda or Uganda were later killed in Libya in 2015 by ISIS, reportedly after seeking to cross the Mediterranean for Europe with other refugees. The three that were taken prisoner and executed by ISIS were identified over social media by a distant relative who lives in Israel, according to +972 Magazine.