Israel turns its back on African refugees

The Israeli government sent 14 Eritreans back to their country of origin last month after they formally abandoned their requests to remain in Israel. Many more such returns are expected. Israel is seeking to address its refugee challenges by promoting the fiction that it hosts few, if any, Africans fleeing persecution, only “infiltrators” and “illegal work migrants.” The action is a troubling departure from Israel’s proud tradition of refugee protection.

Since its founding in 1948, the state of Israel has guaranteed that Jews would never again have to flee persecution with no place to find safety. Israel championed the rights of all refugees, and Israeli officials helped draft the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention and supported its 1967 Protocol, which together protect the rights of people around the world escaping persecution. This sympathy is rooted in not only the Holocaust but also thousands of years of Jewish history and religious tradition. The Jewish Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament, admonishes the faithful to “love the stranger as thyself, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” In the contemporary language of international refugee law, this command is expressed in an obligation not to return asylum seekers to countries where they would face persecution.

Throughout its short history, Israel has welcomed and absorbed Jewish immigrants, many of whom were forced to flee their countries of origin. Israel has been an unlikely place for non-Jews to seek refuge, but that changed in December 2005, when the Egyptian police violently repressed a peaceful demonstration of Sudanese refugees living in Cairo who were calling for better treatment. After at least 20 Sudanese were killed, some of the survivors crossed the Sinai and sought asylum in Israel . In subsequent years, thousands followed , most fleeing abusive regimes in Sudan and Eritrea.

With the Netanyahu government’s recent construction of a 144-mile Sinai border fence between Israel and Egypt, the flow of asylum seekers has been reduced to a trickle. But Israel must still deal with the 55,000 asylum seekers within its borders, and the government’s statements, record and plans are troubling. Eli Yishai, who served as interior minister until this year, recklessly stoked anti-immigrant sentiment and xenophobia by repeatedly referring to asylum seekers as “infiltrators” and urging large-scale detention of migrants. In May 2012, he declared that south Tel Aviv, where many migrants reside, “has turned into the garbage can of the country.”

It has been virtually impossible for applicants to gain asylum in Israel: The approval rate, less than 1 percent, is the lowest of all developed countries. Moreover, the vast majority of Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel have not even been permitted to apply for asylum. Rather, they have remained in legal limbo without official authorization to work.

Recent anti-infiltration legislation provides broad authority to arrest and detain asylum seekers and other migrants for years. These measures have created fears of large-scale roundups, detentions and deportations.

This was the context in which the recent return of Eritreans, who had been detained by Israel, occurred. Although Israeli officials note that the Eritreans signed a form indicating agreement to return, it is not reasonable to call the returns “voluntary,” since detainees are informed by the government that they face the prospect of years in detention in Israel. As the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz this February, “agreement to return to Eritrea under a jail ultimatum cannot be considered voluntary by any criterion.”

The humanitarian stakes are high. According to Human Rights Watch, 80 percent of Eritrean asylum seekers worldwide are granted protection. That is no surprise: The Eritrean government is a brutal dictatorship that imposes forced and indefinite conscription and is guilty of appalling human rights abuses.

The tragedy is that there is another, humane and feasible course of action that does not rely on arrest and prolonged detention designed to compel migrants to agree to return. Whatever one’s view about the construction of the new border fence in the Sinai, it has significantly diminished the likelihood of future large-scale border crossings into Israel. Thus, Israel can institute prompt and meaningful status determination procedures for asylum seekers without fear that the flow from abroad will continue in large numbers. The job will not be easy, but it is wholly possible and would honor Israel’s historic commitment to international humanitarianism.

Eric Schwartz was assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration from 2009 to 2011. He is dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and a board member of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). Mark Hetfield is president of HIAS.

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