Freedom March

12.19.13

After Fleeing War and Genocide, African Refugees in Israel March for Freedom

While African asylum seekers marched toward Jerusalem, calling for their rights in Israel and freedom from detention without trials, armed fighting raged between rival factions of soldiers in South Sudan on Monday. U.N. diplomats said a few hundred people were killed in the violence.

It’s almost fitting that some of the violence from which Sudanese refugees fled in recent years has ticked up in the last few days, as hundreds of Sudanese, Eritreans and other African refugees participated in hunger strikes and a march from an “open prison” in the Negev to the Knesset in Jerusalem in order to protest Israel’s detention policies.

The violence that some Africans in Israel ran from is very real, and ongoing, but in their new home, they faces new challenges. After reaching Jerusalem this week, the African protestors were re-arrested by Israeli police and immigration officers and bused back to the Holot detention facility.

For people who fled civil war, forced conscription in Eritrea and a genocidal regime in Sudan—where the head of state is a wanted war criminal—to have to abscond from a detention facility and march across a frigid Israel in winter just to assert their rights to seek political refuge is appalling.

While Holot has an open-door policy, it is more than 40 miles from the nearest urban center and there is no public transportation nearby. In addition, the detainees are required to appear for a roll call three times per day, and remain in the facility from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. The 150 Africans who marched on Jerusalem this week did not show up for check-in, and police arrested them 48 hours later, returning some to the Holot facility, and others to Saharonim prison.

There are more than 50,000 African migrants in Israel, the majority from Eritrea and Sudan. Since 1953, Israel has offered refugee status to about 200 people, “less than 0.01 percent of all applicants,” according to Refugees International.

In the U.K., 66 percent of Eritreans who arrive illegally are granted refugee status, and 96 percent of those arriving in Canada, according to UNHCR figures reported by The Guardian.

Israel recognized a total of three refugees in 2010.

While immigration experts have said, “Israel has not examined the asylum requests of any Eritreans and Sudanese nationals,” globally, 84 percent of Eritrean asylum seekers and 64 percent of Sudanese are recognized as refugees by host nations.

But because Israel cannot send Eritreans or Sudanese back to their countries under international law, because their lives would be at risk, the state detains them, or attempts to remove them from Israel by offering incentives for them to return to their country, or finding a third country to host the refugees.

Last year, in Israel, “hundreds of asylum-seekers were deported to South Sudan without being permitted access to fair, consistent and transparent individual asylum procedures,” according to Amnesty International.

Still, Israel is not the only country to detain refugee applicants. The U.K. also has a history of dumping asylum seekers in detention centers. But the British government closed some detention facilities in response to public outrage that was voiced through their MPs in parliament.

In Israel, we are not quite there yet. On Tuesday, Haaretz reported Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the government was “determined to enforce the law” regarding African “infiltrators.”

“The law exists for everybody,” Netanyahu said. “Law is law and it adheres to the illegal work infiltrators as well. The infiltrators who were transferred to a special facility can either be there, or go back to their land.”

Netanyahu’s framing of the issue shows either how far removed he is from the plight of African refugees—assuming their only reason for entering Israel was economic, and they could return to their countries safely—or how little Bibi really cares.

Beside the extreme lack of empathy, Netanyahu is forgetting Israel’s obligation under international law to those seeking political asylum.

As he said himself, the law applies to everyone, including the State of Israel, and international conventions are no exception. With regard to the issue of African refugees, the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which Israel signed in 1951 and ratified in 1954, is the relevant legal mechanism.

But Israel signed the convention with a few notable reservations.

For example, it is exempt from Article 8:

With regard to exceptional measures which may be taken against the person, property or interests of nationals of a foreign State [i.e. African refugees, in this case], the Contracting States [Israel] shall not apply such measures to a refugee who is formally a national of the said State solely on account of such nationality. Contracting States which, under their legislation, are prevented from applying the general principle expressed in this article, shall, in appropriate cases, grant exemptions in favour [sic] of such refugees.

Since Israel exempted itself from this article of the convention, the state technically may be justified in taking “exceptional measures” against African refugees “solely on account of [their] nationality.” Still, the measures in this case are exceptionally racist and wrong.

Some Israeli officials are speaking out in solidarity with African refugees, but others appear to be more concerned about Israel’s “demographic balance,” that euphemism of euphemisms, which preferences Jewish citizens over all others in Israel, whether they are minority citizens or those who only hope to become ones.

As is the case for undocumented immigrants in the U.S., many of whom are fleeing poverty, social and political turmoil, or both, some Israeli politicians demonize the African “other” so the public is less likely to empathize with them.

In the U.S., undocumented immigrants from Mexico are “illegals”; in Israel, Eritrean refugees are “infiltrators.” Whether or not the U.S. and Israel are just trying to safeguard their economies, social service systems and other institutions from being overburdened by immigrants who enter the country without proper documents, the issue is not how they got in, but why they came. The policy, within limits, of course, should be about how the government can lend a hand up, integrate these people into our societies, and protect them and future generations from the challenges and horrors they faced at home.

In the U.S. and Israel, both nations of immigrants, governments should do better. States have a responsibility to political asylees under international law, and they have a moral obligation too.

In the least, in Israel, the government should not be beating refugees while they are down. For many African asylum seekers who suffered so much already, imprisoning them for being in the country without papers just adds insult to injury. If Israel wishes to be a light unto the nations, the state can no longer lock up African asylum seekers and leave them in the dark.