In the past few days, Israeli officials in the Population and Immigration authority have begun distributing an ‘information page’ for African refugees at the Holot desert detention center – as reported by Ilan Lior in Haaretz today.
The Hebrew document is chilling. It does not name the third country the refugees would be deported to, although officials who are interviewing the refugees are naming it as Rwanda. It describes the country as one that “has developed greatly over the past decade”, promises reception arrangements at the unspecified country, and ends with a warning that “if you do not agree to leave voluntarily to a third country, enforcement and deportation steps will be taken against you. In the case of deportation, the monetary grant you have been offered will decline significantly”. Not mentioned in the document is the new rule, which is also being communicated orally in the interviews, that refusal to leave will entail indefinite incarceration. The document ends with a “best of luck” wish.
The promises of good treatment upon arrival at this unspecified “developing country” must be weighed against the many testimonies of those who have already been subject to this “arrangement”. Lior Birger reported two months ago in Haaretz, in his piece titled “Torture, Death at Sea: What Awaits Asylum Seekers Israel Deports”:
“[D]ozens of statements we gathered in Europe over the past few months from people who voluntarily left Israel for Rwanda and Uganda in recent years strengthen what previous reports on the matter found: What the deportees expect to face in Rwanda is the beginning of a journey of human trafficking, torture and in many cases death [….] In Rwanda, deportees have the transit documents they received in Israel taken away from them. These are the only identity documents they have. A local contact person locks them up in a hotel room and warns that they must leave the country within a few days. Sometimes they are threatened and all their money is stolen from them upon landing. They are transferred to smugglers who, in return for hundreds or sometimes thousands of dollars, send them to Uganda. From there they are transferred in a similar fashion to South Sudan, to Sudan and on to Libya, from where they try to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Without identity documents, they are often subject to imprisonment by the authorities in various countries. Based on dozens of testimonies and other research, we estimate that hundreds have died in the torture camps in Libya or drowned at sea.”
Some brave and moral Jewish Israelis have initiated an “Anne Frank” inspired venture to hide refugees. It’s fitting, because as one south-Tel-Aviv resident said a few months ago, this is “Nazi stuff”.
Hundreds of Israeli academics, as well as dozens of authors and rabbis, have signed letters urging the government to desist from executing the deportation policy. Prime Minister Netanyahu dismissed these as “leftist intellectuals” at the cabinet meeting on Sunday.
“We are not acting against refugees, we are acting against illegal immigrants who come here to work. Israel will continue to serve as a shelter for real refugees and will remove illegal infiltrators”, he said.
Akiva Eldar challenges Netanyahu’s misrepresentation of this supposed “legality”, in his scathing article “Israel’s Betrayal of African Refugees” in Al Monitor:
“Legally”?, Eldar asks. “Most of the applications of Africans hoping to receive asylum are not duly examined according to the refugee convention Israel has signed. The courts before which the issue has come have severely criticized the Population and Immigration Authority’s treatment of Africans who apply to be recognized as refugees. In one case, the judges stated that the authority had examined only 3% of the asylum requests submitted by citizens of Eritrea and Sudan. The other requests were rejected because of a delay in submitting them — a delay caused by the authority itself”, he writes.
Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy has asked Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, rhetorically: “Do you know, Mr. President, that while 84 percent of Eritrean asylum seekers worldwide are recognized as refugees, in Israel less than 1 percent have been recognized as such?” More specifically, of the roughly 27,500 Eritreans and 7,800 Sudanese in Israel, only eight Eritreans and two Sudanese had been recognized as refugees by authorities, as the UN refugee agency noted in November. That’s about 0.03%. This is a rather consistent Israeli policy (when it comes to non-Jews, that is). As Alona Ferber noted in Haaretz in 2014, “Israel has only recognized some 200 refugees since signing the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees – making it one of the least welcoming countries in the Western world when it comes to granting asylum”.
Israel is being so lackadaisical in its handling of these requests, that it’s as if it doesn’t really want to know. And this institutional ignorance is the basis upon which Netanyahu, and even the Israeli Labor, sell out the refugees as mere ‘infiltrators’.
So now, Israel wants to extend this obscurity to the refugees themselves, in not even naming the third country to which they would be ‘voluntarily deported’ (or else!). Despite the massive reporting of horror potentially awaiting them, they are supposed to feel comfortable with this.
Now, imagine you were an African refugee. If the arrangement that Israel makes for you is, indeed, so solid and transparent, why can it not even name the country to which you are supposed to be deported? Such omission can make your blood freeze. What else are they not telling you? And why are they not telling it?
People who come from countries in which they are being persecuted, as these people do, naturally fear being tricked into situations wherein they will again be persecuted and lose their safety. The Israeli document is hardly a source of comfort. If anything, it is a pathetic and cynical attempt at whitewashing a crime. These refugees know what is at stake. If it isn’t about ending up persecuted in their own countries, it’s about potentially being trafficked, enslaved and tortured elsewhere.
But many Israelis don’t want to know. These people come from “shithole countries” anyway. Human concern is left for “leftist intellectuals”.
Akiva Eldar ended his mentioned piece with a quote from Defense Minister Pinchas Lavon in 1955, referring to Israel’s policy towards Palestinians now under its control:
“The state of Israel cannot solve the question of Arabs that remain in the state in a Nazi way. Nazism is Nazism, even if executed by Jews.”
The mentioned information paper handed out to the refugees ends with the words “we wish you the best of luck”. With a state like Israel, with arrangements like these, with such odds, you’re really going to need all the luck you can get.
In the New Testament, Luke 22, we are told how Judas arranged his betrayal of Jesus by kissing him on the cheek (that’s how the capturers would know who Jesus was). “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?”, Jesus asked.
And so the African refugees are being betrayed – with a kiss, a smile, and a “best of luck” wish.