There are about 36,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugee claimants currently in Israel. Israel claims that the vast majority are illegal migrants or, as Prime Minister Netanyahu (Bibi) calls them, “infiltrators.” T’ruah, an Israeli human rights NGO, claims the reverse, that they have mostly fled oppression and forced military service (Eritrea) for a safe haven in Israel. Israel was one of the first countries to ratify the Refugee Convention in 1954 and, therefore, had agreed not to refoule refugees if they had a legitimate fear of persecution. To assess the application of this criterion, some background might be helpful.
In the early 2000s, Sudanese fled to Egypt as refugees. By 2005, 30,000 had registered for asylum status there, but there were tens of thousands more in the country who had not been registered. In November 2005, a Sudanese asylum sit-in crisis took place in which the majority of the 4,000 protesters were women and children. Over six weeks in a park near the Mohandessin mosque in Cairo, the participants in the sit-in grew to 4,000 just when Egypt had taken steps to deport 640 Sudanese “illegal migrants.” UNHCR offered to organize a voluntary repatriation to Sudan, given that the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Army had signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement on 9 January 2005.
However, UNHCR, which had suspended its asylum hearings after the peace agreement had been signed, was unsuccessful in mediating the dispute in which Sudanese refugee claimants were protesting the dire social and economic problems they faced in Egypt and the insecurity of their status. Overwhelmingly, the Sudanese were unwilling to return to Sudan given that they faced a worse and more dangerous situation there. Further, the agreement the year before (the so-called four freedoms agreement), guaranteeing Sudanese in Egypt freedom of movement, residence, work and property ownership, had never been implemented. The Sudanese were still treated as foreigners with no rights to stay.
The government turned on the refugees using water cannons and batons. On 30 December 2005, thousands of riot police attacked the refugees to end the protest in the camp and killed at least 20, though Boutros Deng claimed that 26 Sudanese were killed, including two women and seven children. Egyptian human rights and refugee organizations claimed the total was much higher and that over 100 were killed. Though no survey is available, most of the public seemed to support the police and called the Sudanese dirty, rowdy criminals and stealers of jobs.
The Eritreans had a slightly different history. They were not fleeing ethnic cleansing and possible genocide, as the Sudanese did from Darfur, but an extremely oppressive regime that made military service compulsory and indefinite following the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia. Deserters were treated harshly and subjected to indefinite prison terms. Those who fled initially made their way to Sudan and then to Libya. In Libya, they were mistreated and enslaved. By 2006, they had shifted to Egypt, but given that they were subjected to the same conditions as the Sudanese, they and the Sudanese headed for Israel in the belief that this nearby democratic country would treat them better, especially since Jews had suffered so deeply and so many had been refugees.
Between 2008 and 2010, traffickers had taken control of the flow and enslaved or ransomed the “refugees.” In 2009, Israel created its own refugee determination system. Israel also closed its border. Physicians for Human Rights-Israel interviewed survivors among those enslaved by the traffickers and estimated that as many as 4,000 died between 2008 and 2012. However, getting past the traffickers did not end their quest to reach the Promised Land. For example, in October 2012 a group of Eritrean refugees with little food or water had been stranded at the border between Egypt and Israel for over a week.
However, 36,000 Eritreans and Sudanese managed to reach Israel. Contrary to some claims, there was no necessity that Egypt as the first country in which they arrived had the obligation to process them as refugee claimants or that Israel had the right to send them back to the country of first asylum to have the claims processed in Egypt. The first country rule is an EU edict and not part of international law.
Israel responded to the influx by building an impenetrable border fence and detention facilities. In processing the claims, only 4 Sudanese and 10 Eritreans were granted refugee status, or .01% of Eritrean claimants compared to a success rate in Canada of 85-90%. The Israeli government also initiated efforts to deport those that had arrived in Israel as “economic migrants” and “infiltrators.” In spite of the Israeli effort, more kept coming, but in significantly reduced numbers. Some moved on from Israel to other destinations. Nevertheless, by the end of 2017, Israel hosted a population of 40,000 Sudanese and Eritreans without access to health benefits or a legal right to work, though most were employed in the underground economy, mostly in hotels and restaurants. In 2016, the Israeli government introduced a 20% withholding tax on their wages.
This past November, Israel announced that it had arranged to relocate these “illegals” to an African nation widely rumoured to be Rwanda and perhaps Uganda. The internment camp at Holon would be closed. The government gave the “illegals” 90 days to leave voluntarily with a grant of $3,500 or face forceful deportation. A minority of Israelis reacted by initiating a sanctuary movement as well as one of civil disobedience and non-cooperation with Israeli expulsion efforts; a group of pilots announced that they would not fly the refugees back to Africa.
At the end of January 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Rwandan President Paul Kagame met in Davos. Purportedly, they finalized their agreement to secretly transfer thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers from Israel to Rwanda. Though some claimants took up the offer of a $3500 grant to help in relocation, most refused. When the Israeli-Rwandan deal became public this past week, Rwanda was embarrassed by the alleged agreement to receive the expelled refugee claimants in return for a reimbursement of resettlement costs. The country (and Uganda) denied that they had signed any such agreement.
In the midst of the past three months, Israeli courts entered the fray. In response to a case filed by the Tel Aviv University Clinic for Refugee Rights, a special Jerusalem appeals court for refugee issues ruled that flight from service in the Eritrean army was a justified ground for claiming refugee status even though British and Danish courts had ruled that it was not. Further, any argument that insisted that granting refugee status to so many Eritreans would threaten the Jewish character of Israel could not be used to make a refugee determination. A stop order was placed on the deportations. In response, the Israeli government requested, and was granted, an extension in the case of asylum seekers from Darfur and Nuba. The High Court of Justice endorsed granting male migrants of working age a “choice” of either deportation with a $3,500 grant or internment in Israel.
In the diaspora, many liberal Jews mobilized to help the refugee claimants working on two tracks – lobbying the Israeli government to drop the policy and negotiating with their own governments to at least take some of the refugees. The effort was successful in Canada when the private sector stood up to the plate to sponsor the refugees and the Canadian government, strongly influenced by a brief of a former Justice Minister, Irwin Cotler, agreed to allow 2,000 to be resettled in Canada in 2018. As a follow-up, in a totally surprising move, this past Monday a separate agreement was announced between the Israeli government and the UN wherein the UN would arrange for the resettlement of 16,250 refugee claimants to other countries over five years while Israel agreed to allow an equivalent number to remain with resident permits. Netanyahu said that he would now scrap the controversial plan to deport the Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers given the unprecedented understanding with the UN.
Within a few hours, in the face of a backlash from his base, Netanyahu reversed course, first suspending the agreement and then cancelling it. Even more oddly, seemingly out of nowhere, Netanyahu blamed the NGO, New Israel Fund (NIF), for sabotaging the deal, but no explanation accompanied the charge. The following day, Prime Minister Netanyahu, in an absolutely unprecedented action in Israel, claimed that NIF had put pressure on Rwanda to withdraw from the deal, but offered no evidence. NIF insists that it has been totally transparent and never did what Bibi claimed. Netanyahu, however, promised that parliament would set up a committee to investigate the NIF and its involvement in sabotaging the deal.
The puzzlement is that this leaves Israel in a far worse position. First, Bibi’s attack on the NIF resulted in an enormous swelling of support for NIF and for the refugees. The support came both from Israel and abroad. It even came from south Tel Aviv that had been undergoing a process of gentrification over the last decade and from which area a delegation met Netanyahu on Tuesday. South Tel Aviv is the area where most of the “infiltrators” live because they have access to the bus station, social services set up by Israeli volunteers and companies seeking casual day labourers. With permanent status, the Eritreans and Sudanese would more likely disperse through the country.
The government’s black eye is even much darker. The Rwandan and Ugandan governments, embarrassed by the whole affair, announced that they had no signed deal with Israel. Further, in openly acknowledging that Israel could not sent the “infiltrators” back to their home countries, the government implicitly conceded that the Eritreans and Sudanese were refugees in some deep sense.
In the meanwhile, the debate continues in Israel with those opposed to the refugee claimants accusing them of being illegal migrant workers and infiltrators who, in Israel, undermine Israeli social life. The defenders of the claimants insist that the vast majority are fleeing oppression and, in Eritrea, endless forced military service. Quite aside from the debate over the refugee claims process, Israel introduced another dimension, its long continuing war with Arab states and the antipathy towards Israel of those states and members of the population. Israel claims the need both to preserve its Jewish character as well as preventing Muslims from entering Israel and undermining the ethnic balance. Tough measures towards asylum seekers (or infiltrators) are necessary, the government declared ignoring a long Jewish tradition, for many, the essence of the Jewish character, to helping those in need.
Netanyahu’s reputation has suffered even more than Israel’s. Yossi Verter wrote:
“In the face of all of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s past capitulations, it was the most disgraceful, the most transparent. In comparison to all his reversals, it was the quickest, the most humiliating. The man had already taught us a chapter on zigzags and back-and-forths – in the story of the Western Wall egalitarian prayer space and the metal detectors at the Temple Mount, for example – but this time he outdid himself, in both speed and flexibility. A contortionist could only dream of having such a liquid backbone.”
However, the result, though embarrassing to the government and especially Netanyahu that finds himself boxed in, still leaves the so-called illegals without security or a clear road to the future. One advance: Israel released the asylum seekers who were interned for refusing deportation to Rwanda.
With the help of Alex Zisman