Asylum-Seekers for Sale – Nora Gottlieb
In early April 2015, the Israeli government confirmed that it had struck an unusual deal with the government of Rwanda. In return for “millions of dollars in grants and sales,”[i] the central African state would take in asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan currently living in Israel. According to media reports, Uganda is contemplating a similar agreement.[ii]
Between 2006 and 2013, approximately 60,000 asylum seekers, most from Eritrea and Sudan, entered Israel through its southern border with Egypt. Seeking a safe haven, they faced a government that deliberately obstructed possibilities for a more stable and dignified life. Israel’s plan to trade asylum seekers to what it calls “safe third countries” demonstrates that the government is prepared to employ unorthodox means, and incur financial expenses, to rid itself of its asylum-seeking population.
The “third country deal” is only the latest in a series of Israeli policy decisions that have compromised asylum seekers’ lives and well-being over the years. These decisions reflect the government’s determination to achieve two goals: to persuade those already in the country to leave, and to deter potential newcomers from arriving. Flouting its obligations under international law, the authorities long avoided reviewing asylum seekers’ requests for state protection. Until today, the legal status of most asylum seekers remains in limbo, as only one percent of applicants have received a response and only four individuals – not four percent of applicants, but four applicants – have been granted refugee status.[iii] (By way of comparison, the recognition rate for Eritrean citizens requesting asylum in European and other industrialized countries is above 90%.[iv]) Israel does not issue work permits to asylum seekers, nor does it grant access to the public health care system or other basic social services. (In contrast, EU member states typically provide asylum seekers with various forms of assistance, including housing and basic social and health benefits,[v] and most allow them to work after a maximum waiting period of nine months.[vi]) In addition, the authorities have repeatedly cracked down on immigrant-run businesses and, more recently, on places of worship.[vii] The emergence of hate crimes – including physical assaults and arson attacks on migrants’ homes and childcare centers[viii] – has convincingly been linked to the incendiary rhetoric of certain Members of Parliament and government officials.[ix] For instance, MP Miri Regev, who was recently appointed Minister of Culture and Sports in Netanyahu’s new government, called asylum seekers “a cancer in our midst” at an anti-immigrant demonstration that quickly spiraled out of control with racial aggression.[x]
Finally, the constant threat of detention looms large over the asylum-seeking communities. Although the Israeli High Court of Justice has repeatedly struck down legislation permitting long-term administrative detention,[xi] asylum seekers lacking a valid visa can be detained without trial for up to 20 months. A recent series of policy changes – including shortened visa renewal periods, reduced opening hours at Ministry of Interior offices, and the introduction of new criteria for renewal, such as presenting recent paystubs – has effectively made thousands of asylum seekers vulnerable to detention.[xii]
To forcibly deport Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers would be a blatant violation of international law that even the Israeli government is unwilling to commit. Instead, the authorities have sought to promote the asylum seekers’ “voluntary departure” from Israel through (not so) subtle coercion. Considerable evidence suggests that the deportees are at risk of grave harm, including torture and death. Even so, the Israelis authorities have pushed thousands of people to leave the country under such ostensibly “voluntary” arrangements, many of them while in detention.[xiii]
In April 2015, the Israeli government announced it would soon begin deporting asylum seekers to the “third countries” mentioned above, Rwanda and Uganda. Those who fail to cooperate with deportation orders within 30 days may face indefinite detention. The government has claimed there is “no danger in these [third] states to the life or liberty of a Sudanese or Eritrean on the basis of race, religion, nationality or belonging to a social or political group.” It similarly claims that deportees may file for asylum in their new countries of residence; that “these states will not deport the refugees to another state where their life or liberty would be at risk; [and] that these states… [will] allow the refugees to live in dignity and make a living.”[xiv] Such reassurances seem ironic in light of the fact that Israel, an affluent, liberal-democratic country, has itself failed to meet these very standards. They are further belied by evidence that Eritrean and Sudanese citizens returning to their countries from abroad may face prosecution and torture.[xv]Whether through lack of self-reflection, cynicism, or bitter historical irony, announcement of Israel’s “third party” agreements coincided with the Passover holiday – the very holiday that commemorates the Jewish people’s biblical tale of exodus. The moral legacy of that tale is defined in the scriptures in no uncertain terms: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”[xvi] This biblical verse should remind the Israeli government and society of the historic and moral roots of today’s principles of refugee protection. Moreover, it should serve as a reminder that in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the newly founded State of Israel was instrumental in formulating the U.N. Refugee Convention.
Today, Israel ought to recall these legacies, both ancient and recent, and strive to meet its minimum obligations, both moral and legal, instead of trying to buy its way out of them by treating asylum seekers, in effect, as a commodity for sale.
[i] Ynet editors. Israel and Rwanda confirm ‘multimillion dollar’ cash-for-refugees deal. Ynet 3 April 2015. Available from: http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4644066,00.html
[ii] Zonszein M. Israel to deport Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers to third countries. The Guardian 31 March 2015. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/31/israel-to-deport-eritrean-and-sudanese-asylum-seekers-to-third-countries
[iii] Lior I. Israel has granted refugee status to only four Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers. Ha’aretz 19 February 2015. Available from: http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/.premium-1.643134
[v] See Access Denied, April 10, 2012: Fortifying the Boundaries of Deservingness.
[vi] European Parliament and Council. Directive 2013/33/EU of 26 June 2013 laying down standards of reception of applicants for international protection. 26 June 2013. Available from: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2013:180:0096:0116:EN:PDF
[vii] See, for example, Shlomo Melamed M. Tel Aviv municipality increases law enforcement against foreigners’ churches. Ynet 10 February 2014. Available from: http://www.mynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4485565,00.html
[viii] See, for example, Weiler-Polak D, Kubovich Y and Lior I. Firebomb attack on asylum seekers’ buildings sparks clashes in south Tel Aviv. Ha’aretz 29 April 2012. Available from: http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/firebomb-attack-on-asylum-seekers-buildings-sparks-clashes-in-south-tel-aviv-1.427022; and Lee V. Eritrean infant suffers brain damage in bus station stabbing. Ha’aretz 13 January 2014. Available from: http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/.premium-1.568197
[ix] Tsurkov E. “Cancer in our body.” On Racial Incitement, Discrimination and Hate Crimes against African Asylum Seekers in Israel. Hotline for Migrant Workers, 2012. Available from: http://hotline.org.il/wp-content/uploads/IncitementReport_English.pdf
[x] Lior I. and Zarchin T. Demonstrators attack African migrants in south Tel Aviv. Ha’aretz 24 May 2012. Available from: http://www.haaretz.com/news/israel/demonstrators-attack-african-migrants-in-south-tel-aviv-1.432262
[xi] Human Rights Watch. Israel: High Court Voids Migrant Holding Law. 2014. [Updated 24 September 2014, cited 18 April 2015]. Available from: http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/09/24/israel-high-court-voids-migrant-holding-law
[xii] Hotline for Refugees and Migrants. How the Israeli Ministry of Interior abuses married asylum seekers. [Updated 26 February 2015, cited 27 April 2015]. Available from: http://hotline.org.il/en/the-ministry-of-interiors-abuse-of-married-asylum-seekers/
[xiii] Human Rights Watch. Make their lives miserable. Israel’s coercion of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers to leave Israel. New York: Human Rights Watch; 2014.
[xiv] Lior I. Israel’s Attorney General approves deportation of African asylum seekers. Ha’aretz 2 April 2015. Available from: http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/.premium-1.650157
[xv] See, e.g., Human Rights Watch. World Report 2014. New York: Human Rights Watch; 2014: p.115. Avaiable from: https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/wr2014_web_0.pdf and Amnesty International. Eritrea: 20 Years of Independence but still no Freedom. Amnesty International, London; 2013: p.30. Available from: http://www.amnestyusa.org/sites/default/files/eritrea_-_20_years_-_afr_64.001.2013.pdf
[xvi] Exodus 22:21