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For Africans in Israel, Time for Justice

Israel’s High Court of Justice struck down Israel’s practice of indefinitely detaining many non-Jewish African asylum seekers without due process in September. The unanimous court ruled that this detention policy violated Israel’s Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty and ordered the government to assess the individual cases of the 1,750 detained asylum seekers for release by December 15.

High Court Justice Arbel wrote in his court opinion that prolonged detention was inconsistent with Jewish values.

“We cannot deprive people of basic rights, using a heavy hand to impact their freedom and dignity, as part of a solution to a problem that demands a suitable, systemic and national solution,” he wrote. “We cannot forget our basic values, drawn from the Declaration of Independence, as well as our moral duty towards every human being, as inscribed in the country’s basic principles as a Jewish and democratic state.”

The judge even quoted Deuteronomy:

You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your gates which is beneficial for him; you shall not mistreat him.

One would have thought the Israeli government would have read the ruling and taken a different path. Whether one wants Israel to be more Jewish, more democratic, equally Democratic and Jewish, or neither for that matter, Justice Arbel summed up the legal and ethical laws and reasons why the detention policy was wrong and would now be outlawed.

Unfortunately, Israel has ignored the spirit of the ruling.

Instead of giving the African asylum seekers a fair hearing, it has busied itself with finding another “solution.” That doesn’t mean seeking justice — it means seeking to find new ways to deter asylum seekers from coming to Israel and to get those already there to leave “voluntarily.”

The “carrot” part of the policy involves paying Africans up to $3,500 if they agree to leave. The “stick” involves making their lives as miserable as possible if they choose to stay.

New legislation has now been approved by the Cabinet and is before the Knesset and the Members are trying to expedite the process and pass it into law by December 2. The new legislation calls for most of the 1,750 current detainees who Israel is supposed to assess for release by December 15 to remain in detention.

Asylum seekers who cannot be deported because their life or freedom would be in danger will be transferred to an “open facility” after one year in administrative detention. They will likely be sent to Sadot, in the Negev desert, which can currently hold 3,300 individuals. Some reports have also expressed that some of the asylum seekers who are not currently detained will also be put into detention.

This “open facility” will be run by the Israeli Prison Service and detainees will be required to report to the facility three times a day in order to ensure that they are not working, which they are not permitted to do, or fleeing detention. On top of all that, detention will once again be indefinite, as the legislation sets no limit on the length of residence in this “open facility”.

This proposed legislation not only violates the High Court’s ruling, it also defies the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ 2012 Detention Guidelines, which state that detaining asylum seekers is only acceptable as a last resort and that it may never be indefinite or applied retroactively.

Many Jewish organizations in the Diaspora have spoken out about this issue, especially since the concept of refugees fairly is so deeply ingrained in Jewish history. A joint letter released last Sunday, November 24 to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu concludes with the following statement:

We realize that, in recent years, Israel had become a favored destination for asylum seekers from Africa, primarily Eritrea and Sudan, and that the country now hosts some 55,000 such persons. We recognize that this population had presented a mounting social and demographic challenge easy to underestimate. But Israel’s recent completion of a fence along the border with Egypt has virtually stopped the arrival of new asylum seekers from Africa and has therefore mitigated the growth of this challenge. As steadfast friends of Israel, we respectfully urge the government to recommit itself to the design and implementation of asylum policies that are consistent with the decisions of Israel’s own independent judiciary, its international law obligations, and our shared Jewish values.

The signatories to the letter include Rabbi Steve Gutow, Executive Director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Mark Hetfield, President and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, E. Robert Goodkind, Chair of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights of the AJC, among 11 other Jewish organizations who signed.

There are very few African asylum seekers entering Israel at this point. Borders are closed and difficult to cross. There are 54,000 African asylum seekers living within Israel’s borders, making up less than 1% of Israel’s population. Most are from Eritrea and Sudan. They are trying to live their lives with dignity and protection from violence and persecution. In Western democracies worldwide, not including Israel, Eritrean asylum seekers are given refugee status 84.5% of the time and Sudanese are accepted at a rate of 74.5%, according to the UNHCR’s 2011 Statistical Yearbook. In Israel, the refugee recognition rate is 0.17 %.

So, I dare ask, what could possibly be so intolerable about this small population of survivors of torture, human trafficking, and persecution living, whose crime rate is lower than the general population’s and who generally keep to themselves, living in Israel?

I am personally exhausted by reading Israeli media’s weekly updates on how the Knesset and Netanyahu plan to solve this “problem”. I hope the Diaspora community will join me and the Right Now Coalition in rising up and taking a stand against this terrible legislation. Let us shift our focus and find ways to help these people establish healthy, dignified lives, and be part of society again so that they can stop living in the indefinite nightmare they’ve been living in.

To take action today, visit our website.

Maya Paley is Co-Founder and Co-Director of Right Now: Advocates for African Asylum Seekers in Israel. Contact her at [email protected]


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