|Sudanese and Eritrean Refugee Claimants in Israel
When reading the portion of the Torah this week in synagogue, Verse 22:20 of Exodus reads: “You shall not harm nor abuse a stranger for you were once strangers in Egypt.” Rabbi Plaut taught me that this injunction in different forms occurred thirty-six times in the Torah, a sign of its significance.
A stranger is a broader category than a refugee. He is a sojourner in a land that is not his. As God prophesied for Abram, or as interposed into the tale after the fact, “your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years.” (Genesis 15:13) It is not that the land cannot be his. However, if he is enslaved and oppressed in that land, then he will remain a stranger until that oppression ceases. Zipporah named the first son she had with Moses, Gershom, “for he was a stranger in a strange land.” (Exodus 2:22) You are a stranger if you are in a land that is not yours; if you are afflicted, you are a suffering stranger..
What if a stranger is in your land? You are not to enslave him. You are not to afflict him. You are not to harm him: “if a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not wrong him.” (Leviticus 19:33) Why? Because you should love him as yourself? No. You do not have to treat the stranger as if he were you. You do not have to love him. You simply shall ensure that he does not come to any harm. Again, why? Because you can recall when you were a stranger, when you were oppressed, when you were afflicted – when you were a stranger in Egypt. You treat him well, not because he is like you, but because you know what it is like to have been him.
All refugees are strangers. But not all strangers are refugees. A stranger can be a tourist, a student-visa holder, someone in your country on business. But refugees can be strangers even in their own land. They can be treated like aliens by the rulers of that country so that it is no longer experienced as their own; they can be persecuted. Or their own land can be so riven by war and violence that they can no longer feel safe there. Whether oppressed or afflicted, they feel forced to flee.
The first type of refugee-cum-stranger in our contemporary period is called a Convention refugee. He has a well-founded fear of persecution directed at him because he is no longer considered a member of that land deserving its protection. The second type is a humanitarian refugee. He is not so much targeted for persecution as fearful of his own and his family’s safety from the extensive violence and conflict in his homeland. Each type is treated differently, even though the injunction not to harm or afflict the stranger still applies.
If a Convention refugee arrives at your border (or your international airport) as an asylum seeker and can prove he has a well-founded fear of protection, your country cannot send him back to his home country for then it becomes complicit in the affliction. The country has several options. It can send the refugee to another country through which he transited as long as that country will not afflict him. The country can offer him protection by giving him an opportunity to prove he was a target of persecution in his own country and, second, if successful in that proof, give him, at the very least, the right to sojourn in that country as an asylee with the same rights and protections as any citizen, or give him an opportunity to become a citizen and not just a sojourner. If your country is a signatory to the Convention, then one can only send the person back to a country through which he transited if that country is also a signatory to the Convention and offers its protection. A country may always accept Convention refugees for protection even if they are not on its territory.
Humanitarian refugees are another story. They have fled their country for different reasons. They may have reached your soil. But they cannot win a claim for refugee under the provisions of the Convention. Nevertheless, your country is still obliged to see that they are not oppressed or afflicted. They cannot be sent home where they will be at risk. They can be sent to other countries, but again only if they will be given protection in that country. They may remain strangers there or in your own country, but the obligation is to ensure their protection.
If in a country’s interests, if in a country’s willingness to share the burdens of refugees, if in a country’s commitment to promoting peace more generally in the world, that country may even go abroad to bring humanitarian refugees home to its soil to offer them temporary protection until the violence ends in that home country and the danger subsides. That country may even go further and offer those humanitarian refugees a path to membership, a path to citizenship, a path to no longer being a stranger in your land.
What about economic migrants, strangers who arrive in your land and want to become members and join to improve their economic security? In the present nation-state system, there is no obligation to provide that opportunity. For a state’s self-interest it may offer such is a possibility; but it is under no obligation to do so.
According to Israeli data, as of June 2016, there were 42,147 asylum-seekers in the country, including 31,000 from Eritrea and more than 8,000 from Sudan. Since a southern barrier wall – really a 140 mile-long fence – was built in 2013, the opportunity for new arrivals has been very limited. Some left “voluntarily”; a relatively small number gained the right to citizenship. There are currently an estimated 38,000 African “illegals” in Israel, the vast majority from Eritrea and Sudan. Of the 15,400 of them between 2009 and 2017 who filed asylum claims (after 2012, they were they required to do so if they wanted to stay), only a miniscule number were successful compared to the majority of acceptance rates in most Western countries. 6,600 claims were rejected and 8,800 are still awaiting a determination of their status. The latter are not targets of removal. Only eleven claimants from Eritrea and 1,100 from the Darfur region were accepted.
Israel has granted the majority “temporary group protection,” that is, accepted that they are humanitarian refugees who cannot be sent back to their home countries torn with violence and strife or, as in Eritrea, life under a very oppressive regime. Eritreans are subject to indefinite compulsory military service; they consider it a form of enslavement. However, Israel does not recognize compulsory military service as a form of oppression. On the other hand, if these refugee claimants who fled Eritrea were to return, they would almost certainly face imprisonment and torture. So whether they are legitimate Convention refugees or not, many argue that they cannot be sent back to Eritrea.
In both South and western Sudan, there is widespread violence. If Sudanese are sent home, they are also at grave risk, but of another kind. Israel has also determined that they cannot be sent home. The Population and Immigration Bureau of Israel (PIBI) announced a plan on 1 January for 2018 to offer the Eritreans and Sudanese who were not successful Convention refugee applicants the opportunity to relocate to another African country where they would not be persecuted. As an incentive, Israel would provide them with $US3,500 as well as a free airline ticket as an incentive to assist in their relocation and would pay the countries targeted for relocation an unknown sum. The option was open until 31 March 2018. One hundred officers were hired to implement the program
The two countries targeted for resettlement locations are believed to be Uganda and Rwanda, but for foreign policy and security reasons, Israel has not named the countries. Rwanda categorically denied the existence of an agreement, secret or open, to accept such refugees. Uganda did as well. Uganda already has about one million Sudanese who are protected as strangers in a land that is not their own. They can work. Their children can attend school. However, Uganda has not offered them a route to citizenship. Though protected, they would still be living in a quasi-dictatorship. Of those who have voluntarily left Israel, Israeli government monitors insist they have not been subject to prosecution. Under the voluntary program over the last four years, 20,000 have left. 5,000 went to Uganda. Many of those returned to Eritrea.
Under the new plan, those Eritreans and Sudanese have another alternative to voluntary departure with an incentive. If they do not agree to a voluntary departure, they will be imprisoned. The Supreme Court of Israel will probably rule that such an option would be illegal; when the alternative is prison, then departure is not voluntary. In August 2017, the Court issued an injunction preventing the government from holding these refugee claimants in prison indefinitely. Yet in 2017, Israel forcibly repatriated 5,200 Georgians and Ukrainians and did not offer them an economic incentive to leave voluntarily. Voluntary departure requires agreement of both the receiving country and the so-called refugees,
A number of human rights organizations have claimed that the voluntary exit plan puts vulnerable people at risk. As stated above, some Eritreans and Sudanese have already left Israel voluntarily and evidence has not demonstrated that they are subjected to abuse in the countries to which they returned. The evidence: PIBI representatives contacted 48 of the 163 relocated infiltrators that they tried to contact; not one allegedly complained. Were the others in hiding? Were they induced into assenting that there were no reprisals? It is difficult to say without the observations of independent investigators. Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri Deri claims that, “if it comes to my attention there is a danger or the third countries are not keeping their side of the agreement, then of course I will stop it and re-evaluate it.”
However, a human rights report, “Better a Prison in Israel than dying on the way,” (HRW) based on 19 interviews with Eritreans in Europe who previously had voluntarily agreed to relocate to Rwanda and Uganda between 2014 and 2016, instead of landing documents and work permits, they claimed that they were deprived of their ID cards and exposed to threats and arrest until they headed for Libya and Europe. The problem with such a report, just as the problem with the Israeli whitewash, is that it comes from a small group surveyed. It is in the interest of these individuals to make a claim of mistreatment to win refugee status in Europe. Finally, Human Rights Watch is on Israel’s bad books for its past reports which were viewed as biased and anti-Israel.
The main issue, however, seems not to be the incentive for voluntary departure, but the threat of imprisonment if the opportunity is not taken. Law professors have protested its illegality. Humanitarians, doctors, rabbis, human rights advocates have all objected. Pilots have insisted that, under such conditions, they will not fly Sudanese and Eritreans faced with de facto expulsion. Some Holocaust survivors have even offered their homes as sanctuaries.
Another criticism has arisen based on self-interest. Hotel owners and restaurants employ many of the Eritreans and Sudanese. They claim the tourist sector would be jeopardized and would face a labour shortage. Deri counters by saying that he will increase the number of Palestinians with permits to work in Israel by 30,000. Further, he insists that Israel has a greater responsibility towards the Palestinians.
At the present time, some Canadian Jews have been protesting the Israeli government actions. The official organization representing the Jews of Canada to Parliament, particularly on the subject of Israel, has been urging Canada to take in some of the Eritrean and Sudanese in Israel. UNHCR confirmed on 7 February that it had initiated discussions with Canada suggesting that Canada accept some of the Eritreans and Sudanese in return for Israel allowing the remainder to stay. Complex negotiations are underway.
In addition to Eritreans accepted as Convention refugees (1,725 in 2014), Canada already has its own program for accepting Eritreans and Sudanese as humanitarian refugees. It accepts Sudanese currently in Jordan since Jordan began deporting Sudanese back to their own country in December 2015. Israel planned to remove 600 Africans per month as they sought to renew their two-month visas.
There have been protests around the world against Israel, but none that I could locate against Jordan, though at the end of 2015, Human Rights Watch wrote a critical report on Jordan’s deportation program. Canada has a multi-year plan to resettle Eritreans in Ethiopia and Sudan, with 4,000 scheduled to arrive by the end of 2018. However, between January and November 2016, 910 Eritrean refugees were resettled to Canada from Israel under the private sponsorship program. JIAS (Jewish Immigrant Aid Services) of Toronto helped facilitate some of that movement. Canada has also accepted 1,856 Eritreans as Convention refugees since 2009, and, in recent months, a few who arrived from Israel. The acceptance rate of Eritrean asylum claimants is almost 90% compared to an average acceptance rate overall of almost two-thirds of claimants. The acceptance rate for Sudanese is 72.7%. In the U.S., the acceptance rate is 72.7%.
The answer to the problem of the Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel may rest on international diplomacy and domestic public pressure and influence rather than on law or ethics. However, that does not excuse nor should it excuse Israel from incarcerating those people as a coercive measure to induce them to leave. Unfortunately, it seems that only when refugees are threatened, as the Indochinese refugees in 1978-79 were threatened by Malaysia and other countries in the Far East, do other countries come forth to share the burden.