About 60,000 African asylum seekers have entered Israel since 2005, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea. Many died along the way, of starvation or dehydration in Sinai. Many were tortured or raped by Bedouin criminal organizations. And many were immediately stopped at the border by Israel and sent back to Egypt, where they were then deported to Eritrea and Sudan — two countries known to be extremely dangerous for those who have left — as they are considered to be traitors and can be killed upon their return.
In recent months, the international media has covered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s harsh immigration policies, the rhetoric emanating from the right-wing Ministry of Interior and the violent protests against the asylum seekers by some Israeli citizens. The latest twist in the fate of these asylum seekers came when Eli Yishai, the Interior minister, announced that he would start rounding up 15,000 Sudanese on October 15 if they did not start “voluntarily” leaving. The Cabinet has yet to approve this plan, and the decision itself was postponed for two weeks to leave time for the high court to determine whether the deportations would be illegal.
According to Israel’s Anti-Infiltration bill, infiltrators can now be detained for a minimum of three years and a maximum of forever. The detention facility consists of tent cities and constructed buildings in the Negev, which is being run by the Israel Prison Services. Detainees will also not be permitted to work.
Jews in the Diaspora, overall, have responded to this negative media attention as just another biased and unwarranted attack on Israel. Others have dismissed the asylum problem as an issue Israel needs to deal with on her own without meddling by those of us in the Diaspora. Some say vaguely that they worry about Israel’s demographics. And still others say it’s not a priority issue when we have Iran and Hezbollah threatening us.
Unfortunately, these are all excuses.
According to the Refugee Convention of 1951, which Israel helped establish and then signed, the Africans entering Israel through Sinai are “asylum seekers.” Strangely, the only people calling them asylum seekers are the Israeli humanitarian organizations. Even the international news agencies call them “migrants.” The Israeli government and Israeli news agencies call them “infiltrators.” The numbers of asylum seekers entering Israel has steadied since the fence has been built along the border, and the reality is that, according to a recently published Knesset report, they are only 0.75% of the population.
Words carry weight in national and international policy. According to the Refugee Convention, asylum seekers cannot be criminalized for entering a country, as they are not illegally crossing the border. They are seeking asylum and should, therefore, undergo a process through which they apply for refugee status and end up either accepted as refugees or denied status. This process, termed Refugee Status Determination, does not exist in Israel (although the government will claim otherwise).
Instead, infiltrators from Sudan and Eritrea are allowed to stay in the country because Israel acknowledges international warnings that they will likely be killed if they return to their countries of origin. Although they are permitted to stay, the asylum seekers are not permitted to work, and this causes many to end up either working under the table for next to nothing or not working and having to sleep in the streets.
Worldwide, Eritreans receive refugee status 84.5% of the time and Sudanese receive refugee status 74.4% of the time, according to the Refugees’ Rights Forum. These populations have suffered tremendous injustices at the hands of their own governments. But when, in Israel, only 1 out of 4,600 cases was granted “refugee status” in 2011, it is difficult to see how the government can continue to claim that it has a Refugee Status Determination procedure. Either the entire world is lying about the plight of Eritreans and Sudanese, or Israel is lying about its so-called RSD process. Over 82% of all those from Eritrea and Sudan are denied even the basic right to submit an application for refugee status.
Clearly, the Israel’s government, media and much of its population are suffering from a case of paranoia. Yishai even stated that Israel was a country for “the white man” at a protest against the Africans. With Israel importing Filipino and Thai people so that there are at least 200,000 in the country at all times, and allowing 100,000 tourists to overstay their visas without ever making a fuss about it, it would be hard to say that racism is not at work here.
We are reminded in the Torah not to oppress the stranger, “for we were once strangers in Egypt.” So why aren’t more of us standing up to the Israeli government, along with the courageous Israeli human rights activists, and demanding that they stop this immoral treatment of people? The answers are always the same: “We’re busy dealing with Iran or Hezbollah,” or, “These people are not asylum seekers, they’re economic migrants,” or, “They’re better off in detention than in the streets,” or, “They’re taking jobs from the unemployed.” We all know the power of propaganda and the power of creating excuses for our own poor behavior. It’s up to us to stop excusing ourselves.
Maya Paley is a Los Angeles-based activist and co-founder of Right Now, an international, volunteer-based coalition advocating for the rights of the African asylum seekers in Israel.