Eritrean and Sudanese Refugee Claimants in Israel

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

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Palestinian Refugees and Jews from Arab Lands

Palestinian Refugees and Jews from Arab Lands

by

Howard Adelman

The following article appeared in my email. For the few who already received it and my response, please forgive the repetition. The other recipients (96%) were blocked. My new method of avoiding blocks is to omit the article as an attachment. Also, excuse my further digression from the current and world economic order to delve once again into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The return of Palestinian refugees and international law

The first step to solving the Palestinian refugee problem is Israel’s own clear recognition of the historical facts.

Arutz Sheva recently held an enlightening conversation with history buff Itamar Tzur on the topic of the “return” of Palestinian “refugees.”

According to the UN, there originally were 710 thousand Arab refugees who left or were forced out of their homes as a result of the War of Independence. At about that time, right after World War II, there [WERE] about 50 million other refugees in the world. They all eventually found new homes. However, the Palestinian refugee problem, with help from the UN, has gotten worse, and there are now about 5 million Palestinians claiming refugee status.

A special UN organization, UNRWA, was established in 1949 to deal with the Palestinian refugees separately from the UNHCR, which deals with all other refugees around the world. UNRWA was established, said Tzur, because no other nation was willing to take them and because their continued status as stateless refugees allows them to cast blame on Israel.

It’s important to note, said Tzur, that the UN passed a resolution at the time, Resolution 174, urging that the Palestinian refugees “wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors” be allowed to do so. However, the Arabs themselves did not agree to this resolution because it included recognition of the Jewish state.

“The millions of refugees from the 40’s and 50’s were settled long ago, and none of them spoke about going back to their original homes. It’s only the Palestinians who are promised this kind of solution, while they are in the meantime receiving the highest funding of any refugee group in the world.”

According to Tzur, the solution will begin with the recognition by Israelis themselves of what actually happened historically “We must remember that the ‘Nakba’(disaster) that supposedly occurred to the Palestinian Arabs is overshadowed by the ‘Nakba’ that was perpetrated against the Jews from Arab countries at the same time.” This awareness must begin with us.

Tzur also noted that we need to be aware of the treatment of other expulsions from different nations. “We should be looking at the recent historical precedents. During the last century, there have been mass deportations all over the world. After World War II, 12 to 17 million Germans were expelled from Europe to East or West Germany. There were about 14.5 million expelled from India to Pakistan and vice versa. In the 1970’s nearly 200,000 Greeks were expelled from their homes in Cyprus. In the 80’s 300,000 Muslims were forced to leave Bulgaria and Turkey. Even in the 90’s there were mass deportations. Kuwait expelled some 200,000 Palestinians after the first Iraq war. This is just the tip of the iceberg.”

“During the 50’s and 60’s, the young State of Israel absorbed 800,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries who were forced to leave with no compensation for their property or possessions. Meanwhile, the 700,000 Palestinian refugees from 1949 have mushroomed to 5,000,000 who are knocking on the doors of the State of Israel under the delusion of a right of return that is supposedly recognized by International Law.”

My response follows:

Shimon Cohen,
Arutz Sheva.

“The first step to solving the Palestinian refugee problem is Israel’s own clear recognition of the historical facts.” True!

Then when writing an article entitled, “The return of Palestinian refugees and international law,” it would be helpful if the facts cited were all correct and if relevant facts were not omitted. The flaws could have been because Itamar Tzur was not adequately reported or was misunderstood. Or they may have been the result of Tzur being a “history buff” and not a historian.

1. The original number of Palestine refugees in 1948 is reasonably accurate, though on the low end of the 711,000-726,000 range, the higher number drawn from the Final Report of the United Nations Economic Survey Mission for the Middle East and 711,000 figure according to the General Progress Report and Supplementary Report of the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine.
2. That number referred to both Arab and Jewish Palestine refugees; the definition of a Palestine refugee was “a person “whose normal place of residence was Mandatory Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both [my italics] their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.”
3. Note, a refugee in this definition did not have to cross an international border. Second, of the total, approximately 35,000 were Jewish.
4. In addition to the Jewish Palestine refugees who were resettled within Israel, many of those displaced still live in what was Mandatory Palestine, including:
a) Arab Palestinians who lost their homes and livelihood but continued to live within the Green line on territory administered by Israel;
b) The approximately 60,000 Arab Palestinians who were repatriated to Israel under a family reunification program over the years;
c) Approximately 16% of Arab residents of the West Bank are both Jordanian citizens and so-called Palestinian refugees, but would be called internally displaced persons in current parlance;
d) Almost 40% of Gazan residents are descendants of 1948 Palestinian refugees and all of them would be dubbed internally displaced persons in current parlance.
5. The number 50 million refugees after WWII refers to both refugees and internally displaced (did not cross an international border) after WWII.
6. Most, but absolutely not all, found new nations in which they could belong.
7. “The Palestinian refugee problem, with help from the UN, has gotten worse, and there are now about 5 million Palestinians claiming refugee status.”
a) It is questionable whether the UN should be blamed for what its members decide, including the U.S. and Israel.
b) When we were advising the Canadian-led Palestinian refugee talks and discussed transferring aid from UNRWA to the Palestinian authority directly in Gaza and the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) rather than through the UN, Israel objected, claiming that the funds coming into the area would decrease, resulting in an additional burden on Israel as the administrative authority for those areas;
c) Those 5 million refugees are NOT claiming refugee status. Making such an assertion indicates little knowledge of the operations of the international refugee regime. The Palestinian refugees, or the vast majority of them, are not seeking Convention refugee status. They are so-called “humanitarian” refugees, products of displacement from war and not Convention refugee claimants who want the status of a Convention refugee so they can claim admission to a signatory country to the Convention.
8. “A special UN organization, UNRWA, was established in 1949 to deal with the Palestinian refugees separately from the UNHCR.” This wording clearly implies UNHCR existed at the time. It did not. UNHCR was established on 14 December 1950 and implemented in 1951 initially to deal with European refugees, but not as a welfare issue but as a mode of providing a route to permanent membership status for the refugees remaining after WWII. The practice before 1950 was to deal with each group of refugees on a regional basis and as a humanitarian issue only. Thus, for example, there was a parallel organization set up at the time to deal with Korean refugees. The humanitarian organization was viewed as having responsibility for the housing, food and health of the refugees until a more permanent solution could be found. No rights were inferred at the time in the use of the term “refugee.”
9. When UNRWA was established, there was no foreknowledge that it was introduced “because no other nation was willing to take them” and certainly not “because their continued status as stateless refugees allows them to cast blame on Israel.” There is no historical evidence for either claim that I know of. With respect to the first assertion, UNRWA was in fact established with the conviction that, with the assistance of redevelopment and rehabilitation aid, the refugees would be assisted to settle in the Arab countries where most were located or, especially in Iraq seen as very hospitable to development modeled on the Tennessee Valley Authority. That plan did not work out, not because countries wanted to “blame” Israel, but because the Arab countries in which the refugees were located, including Jordan, though Jordan least of all, were determined to eradicate Israel as a state. Do not forget that Jordan, unlike the other Arab states, did give the refugees, both those in Jordan proper as well as those in the West Bank that Jordan annexed, full Jordanian citizenship; 120,000 Palestinians in Jordan today who came from the Gaza Strip were not given citizenship.
10. UNRWA evolved over its first decade from being a temporary humanitarian agency into a UN educational and welfare agency for Palestinian refugees, propelled by the antipathy of the Arab states accepting Israel as a state.
11. “(T)he UN passed a resolution at the time, Resolution 174, urging that the Palestinian refugees ‘wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors’ be allowed to do so. However, the Arabs themselves did not agree to this resolution because it included recognition of the Jewish state.” The whole of resolution 174, or at least the relevant article 11, should be quoted. Resolution 174 article 11 reads as follows: “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.” Note the following:
a) There is no “urging”; the resolution is couched in the language of choice, both for the refugees themselves and Israel, and the resolution recommends that Israel make that choice of granting permission;
b) even that recommendation is qualified – the refugees have to be willing to live in peace;
c) if the refugees do not decide to return and if Israel does not permit them to do so, the tone of the resolution shifts to requiring those parties responsible, presumably the states that initiated or engaged in the war, to compensate the refugees. It does not say that Israel should provide that compensation, though an independent judge might determine that Israel was responsible financially at least for the refugees forced out of their homes who were not an evident military threat to Israel at the time.
12. To assert that the Arab states did not agree to the resolution because it would include recognition of the Israeli state is misleading. For it is possible not to recognize a state without being determined to eliminate it as a political entity. The latter was the goal for almost all Arab states, except Jordan and, to some degree Lebanon.
13. “The millions of refugees from the 40’s and 50’s were settled long ago, and none of them spoke about going back to their original homes.” Just not true. Most resettled refugees accepted their new homes as permanent, but most longed to return and spoke of return often. Further, many were militants who were determined to return through the use of coercion and displacement of the government ruling the home state. Cubans in the sixties and Tutsis in 1990 were prime examples.
14. The biggest error is to suggest that “Palestinians have been ‘promised’ return.” They never were. The right of return only gradually emerged as the central interpretation of Article 11, contrary to historical analysis, and gradually became the accepted meaning of Article 11 after 1967. Up until then, to assert that the refugees had a “right of return” was interpreted as accepting Israel as an irremovable entity.
15. Tzur evidently said that 5,000,000 Palestinian refugees “are knocking on the doors of the State of Israel under the delusion of a right of return that is supposedly recognized by International Law.” The delusion about international law is correct, but the depiction of 5 million demanding reentry into Israel is patently false based on surveys among Palestinian refugees. That is not because these Palestinian refugees have given up on “a right of return,” but because they distinguish between actual return and the recognition of the right even if they decide not to return.
16. Nevertheless, in spite of all these errors, it is right of Tzur to remind us all of the forced exodus of Jews from Arab lands, the even larger numbers involved, the fact that no compensation was ever offered to them [see the series on Arab Jews https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/?hl=en&shva=1#inbox/158b762bf59f6b2c?compose=158b0d40f9eccc9c%5D, and, further, that the Palestinian refugee solution should be set within the context of resolutions and outcomes applied to other refugee populations around the world since the end of WWII. A “right of return” is not recognized under international law.

For a far more extensive understanding of the context and of the issue, see:

Howard Adelman and Elazar Barkan (2011) No Return, No Refuge. New York: Columbia University Press.