Just in time for Passover, Israel continues denying African asylum seekers their freedom

Jews Celebrating Passover. Lubok, XIXth century. By Anonymous folk artist (http://tapirr.narod.ru/art/j/jud/tora_illustr.htm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One night during the war last summer, I was sitting in a bar in Tel Aviv,  when a random guy sat down next to me and started up a conversation. He was from Haifa and had come down to Tel Aviv to meet friends, he told me, and he was waiting for them to arrive.

Soon the conversation turned to the usual, random-guy-talking-to-you-in-a-bar questions. What do you do? I’m a journalist. Where do you work? Haaretz (the Israeli left-wing daily). At that moment, like in so many other conversations, his face dropped. I don’t like Haaretz, he said. I don’t agree with a lot of what you write. It was wartime and all I really felt like talking about then was the conflict and our hopeless future, so, perhaps foolishly, I humoured him. What don’t you agree with? I asked, expecting the standard “Haaretz has gone too far left, how can you publish Gideon Levy” diatribe, but no. What he most objected to was not our coverage of Gaza, but of Israeli policy on African asylum seekers.

As he spoke, his anger became more apparent, with raised tone and clenched jaw. Newspapers like Haaretz were willing to sell the country to the hordes of African migrants that he imagined were making their way to Israel (the current number in the country, by the way, is less than 50,000; the entire Israeli population is around 8 million). Not only was Israel willing to sell the only Jewish state in the world up the river, but these Africans were criminals and no good for the country. Israel’s policy of locking them up, pressuring them to leave, without even assessing their case for asylum, were the only options, he said. The asylum seeker issue is complex and fraught with tensions, and south Tel Avivians living in neighbourhoods that absorb most of the African migrants moving to the city have legitimate complaints that need to be heard. This guy, however, was suggesting that deporting African migrants en masse was only answer. No dialogue, no improved mechanism for reviewing asylum applications.

It was wartime, rockets and rocket alert sirens, round-the-clock news of strikes and death and frustrated cease-fires, and this guy from Haifa was furious and worried about Sudanese and Eritreans taking over the country. An argument of sorts ensued, and then an awkward silence as we were both left with the unwanted company. I was reminded of this man with the news this week that, as we prepare for Passover, the holiday that celebrates the Jewish exodus from Egypt, and hence, freedom, the Israeli government is planning to start deporting or imprisoning Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers under a new policy “in the coming days.” As per Haaretz:

“The Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority has confirmed a report in Tuesday’s Haaretz that the authority will begin deporting asylum seekers in the coming days from Eritrea and Sudan to third countries in Africa, even without their consent.

The authority is not disclosing the identity of those countries or the nature of the agreements, but they are apparently Uganda and Rwanda, where about 1,500 asylum seekers have already been sent over the past year after signing a statement that their departure was voluntary.

Under the new policy, asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan will be able to be deported without their consent. Those who refuse will also be placed at the Saharonim Prison in south Israel for an indefinite period.”

Since higher numbers of African asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan started crossing Israel’s border to the south mostly after 2007, the Israeli government has tried its hardest to make their lives here impossible, imprisoning them and seemingly processing as few requests for refugee recognition as possible. In fact, according to Israel NGO the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, Israel has a refugee recognition rate of 0.15 percent, the lowest rate among Western states. We also built a fence on the border to stop them coming in.

For the guy in the bar, the crux of the issue was that bleeding-heart liberals don’t understand that the Jewish state will disappear if more Africans move here. Never mind some basic compassion for people fleeing conflict and persecution, or the fact that he didn’t have his numbers straight – 50,000 asylum seekers do not a dent in the Jewish majority make – if it was Jewish immigrants we were talking about, he would probably say, “the more, the merrier.” For him, Israel’s asylum seeker policies guarantee the freedom of Israelis and Jews, even if at the expense of others.

The fact this new policy will be enacted right around Passover is poignant, to say the least, and a number of people have pointed out this poignancy (see for example here, and here.), but Israel’s treatment of Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers has been bad for years, and it was bad last year around Passover, too. Let’s hope that between now and next Passover, something will shift, and that the Jewish celebration of freedom will give us more than another opportunity to think about how the Israeli government is depriving certain human beings of their freedom.

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