The Debate Over Planned Deportation of Eritrean and Sudanese Nationals

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Deporting people against their will to the countries they escaped from evokes strong and disturbing recollections of dark episodes in Jewish history.

In the past few weeks, Israeli public opinion is in turmoil over a government plan to deport back to Africa thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese nationals, who have been living in Israel for several years. Parts of the Israeli public see them as refugees who fled their homes, in fear for their lives or in order to escape an intolerable political, social and economic situation, hoping to find shelter. Others regard them as job seekers, who made it to Israel not in fear of persecution, but in order to advance their economic situation. Of course, these conflicting perspectives are not unique to Israel and similar debates are taking place today in many other countries around the world.
For the last decade, Israel has been wrestling with the implications of the presence of thousands of asylum seekers, who mostly live in a few neighborhoods in Southern Tel Aviv. Their concentration in just a few neighborhoods has generated a high level of social unrest. In addition, Israeli policy makers are cognizant of the fears of social, economic, demographic and political consequences of flooding the small Jewish State with large numbers of non-Jewish foreigners.

Among the solutions developed and implemented over the past few years, are the use of open and closed detention facilities in the Negev, designed to separate the foreign population from Israeli cities, and to encourage their voluntary departure. Several government initiatives for "voluntary deportations" were also implemented in recent years, resulting in the return of thousands of Africans to their home countries, or to other allegedly safe third-party countries (typically located in Africa, rarely in the West).

This month, a new government plan was launched, aimed at thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese nationals (app. 5000 persons) and  offer them the choice between voluntarily leaving Israel or facing long-term incarceration. Those who agree to leave will be given $3,500 and a plane ticket to an allegedly safe third-party country (according to most press reports - Rwanda). The current plan does not apply to women, children, parents to young children, refugees over 60 years old, or refugees with health problems. It is focused on deporting working age men, who according to the government are job seekers and not bona fide refugees.

Deporting people against their will to the countries they escaped from or to third-party countries where their future is uncertain, evokes strong and disturbing recollections of dark episodes in Jewish history, during which Jews sought places of refuge in vain. This dissonance between the deportation policy, moral sensibilities and our past heritage has led thousands of Israeli citizens to sign petitions in the past two weeks calling to "say no to the deportation". These include El Al pilots, who announced that they will not fly deportees out of the country, intellectuals, authors, doctors, architects, social workers and holocaust survivors. Plans are being made to hide refugees in Jewish homes. The resonance of this last measure is particularly powerful (and controversial within the Israeli public) in light of 20th century Jewish history.

This lively public debate over the fate of the African deportees, glosses over some legal questions and practical problems. About 38,000 Africans who are considered "without immigration status" currently reside in Israel. Among them, 35,000 are Sudanese and Eritrean nationals. As of 2017, from the thirty-eight thousand, some 15,000 have submitted asylum requests to the Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration. To date, approximately 7,000 applications were examined and only 11 requests for refugee status were approved.

This rate places Israel among the countries with the lowest asylum recognition rates in the Western world. Note, however, that Israel does not deny that most Eritrean and Sudanese nationals are eligible for “group protection” and cannot be sent back to their home countries, or to "unsafe countries" in which they are unlikely to be able to remain.   

It is important to note, that the question remains whether the deportation of thousands of foreign nationals will actually change the social and economic situation in southern Tel Aviv. The government has stated that most Eritreans and Sudanese nationals will not be deported from Israel; consequently, it is doubtful whether the new policy will attain its aim of changing the situation on the ground. And if indeed the situation remains the same, what is the government planning to do to assist those neighborhoods, and their localities and foreign residents? And how can such morally questionable deportations be justified, if they are unlikely to meet their goals?

We must demand that the government answer these questions. We believe that only an open, evidence-based public discussion, will properly address public concerns about the treatment of the Eritreans and Sudanese nationals. This discourse would enable Israel to develop a true, comprehensive, practical and moral solution to this predicament.

first published in the Jerusalem Post