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20/02/2018 14:13 SAST | Updated 20/02/2018 14:13 SAST

Israel's Deportation Of African Refugees 'Racism Of The Worst Kind'

The imminent deportations of African refugees fleeing violent persecution have sparked a debate in Israel on Jewish values and the legacy of the Holocaust.

African migrants demonstrate with white paint on their faces outside the Embassy of Rwanda in the Israeli city of Herzliya on February 7, 2018, against the Israeli government's policy to forcibly deport African refugees and asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda.
JACK GUEZ via Getty Images
African migrants demonstrate with white paint on their faces outside the Embassy of Rwanda in the Israeli city of Herzliya on February 7, 2018, against the Israeli government's policy to forcibly deport African refugees and asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda.

Upon exiting Gaza, one has to wait in a no-man's land near the border with Israel. It was in this narrow strip of no-man's land that I encountered an Eritrean man who has been stuck in this strip for many months. He did not have permission to enter Israel and was not legally in Gaza. This was 2015. Today, many Eritreans who have escaped Eritrea are literally stuck in a state of limbo and are unwelcome wherever they go.

Eritrea, a one-man dictatorship, is one of the most oppressive countries in the world. Eritrea has no legislature, no independent civil society organisations and no independent judiciary or media. Eritreans have to endure mandatory, indefinite military service during which they are often abused and subjected to forced labour.

Many Eritreans who managed to make the uncertain and traumatic journey to Israel have sought asylum there. Sudanese refugees have similarly made the long journey to Israel to seek employment and a better life. The African refugees consist mostly of Eritreans and Sudanese. The Sudanese migrants are mostly from the Darfur region.

Since 2005, these migrants have come to Israel to seek refuge from the brutal civil war. Over the past two decades, African migrants have had a precarious status in Israel. The vast majority of African asylum seekers in Israel are not granted asylum. Israel has already started sending refugees to African countries that offer them no protection. In many cases, Africans are essentially being sent to their death.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now putting the screws on these refugees. Israeli authorities plan to start deporting African refugees and migrants from Israel in less than two months. Deportation notices have been issued to approximately 38,000 Africans living in Israel. Many of these Africans in Israel are in low-paying jobs, and many of the migrants speak perfect Hebrew and have embraced Israel as their home. These recent actions by the Israeli government call into question its commitment to international law, as well as its adherence to some of the values Israel was founded on.

In August last year, the high court of justice approved the new deportation policy, but ruled that Israeli authorities had to ensure migrants would only be deported to countries where they would be safe. Israel claims that it has made agreements with Uganda and Rwanda to allow for the safe deportation of African asylum-seekers to these countries.

But both countries have denied that they have made agreements with Israel in this regard. Rwanda recently emphasised that it would not accept deported persons who are sent to Rwanda against their will.

Human rights activists in Israel believe the government's policy is not only morally dubious but violates international law.

The principle of non-refoulement is deeply entrenched in international law. It states that a state is not permitted to deport a person liable to face persecution, torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. It is clear that Israel is violating this fundamental principle. Israel has further confronted refugees with a choice: they either agree to be deported, or they face a (possibly indefinite) period of detention in Israel.

Israel's supreme court has repeatedly ruled that the indefinite holding of a person in custody in order to break their spirit violates the right to dignity under the basic law. Detention of this kind also violates Israel's obligations under international human-rights law.

Over the past two months, there has been increasing resistance within Israel to the deportation policy. Whereas Israel's asylum policies have long been questionable, the use of the word "deportations" represents a red line for Israelis. Human-rights activists in Israel believe the government's policy is not only morally dubious but violates international law.

AFP/Getty Images
African migrants demonstrate with white paint on their faces, outside the Embassy of Rwanda in the Israeli city of Herzliya on February 7, 2018, against the Israeli government's policy to forcibly deport African refugees and asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda.

A group of prolific Israeli academics has mobilised and signed a letter addressed to the education minister in which they ask him to stop the deportations. Letters such as these could have some impact, once court challenges are brought to halt the deportations. A campaign was launched calling on Israelis to hide asylum seekers if it becomes necessary. The public response has been massive. According to the organisers, the campaign (called Israel Refuge) was inspired by the story of Anne Frank.

The imminent deportations have sparked a debate in Israel on Jewish values and the legacy of the Holocaust. Many Israelis believe that Israel has a moral obligation to shelter African asylum seekers, considering the fate of Jewish refugees turned away from Western countries during the Holocaust. Some believe that Israel has a duty to present Jewish values to the world. Like the U.S., Israel is a nation of refugees. Even if it is argued that Israel has a particular character as a Jewish state, numerous Jewish academics, as well as rabbis, have strongly protested the imminent deportations.

Prime minister Netanyahu has consistently described African migrants as "infiltrators". White asylum-seekers in Israel are treated significantly better than Africans. Netanyahu has not shown the slightest regard for the indignities inflicted on refugees from Eritrea and Sudan in the course of fleeing to Israel.

Once in Israel, they may be further humiliated and insulted by Netanyahu's refusal to recognise their claims for asylum. These refugees are unwelcome at every turn. It is therefore not entirely surprising that many refugee seekers are choosing prison over deportation. It is time this is called what it is: racism of the worst kind.

Mia Swart is a visiting fellow at Brookings Doha Centre.