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Israel turns its back on African refugees

By Eric P. Schwartz and Mark Hetfield, Published: August 3 Eric Schwartz was assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration from 2009 to 2011. He is dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota

By Eric P. Schwartz and Mark Hetfield, Published: August 3

Eric Schwartz was assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration from 2009 to 2011. He is dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and a board member of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). Mark Hetfield is president of HIAS.

The Israeli government sent 14 Eritreans back to their country of origin last month after they formally abandoned their requests to remain in Israel. Many more such returns are expected. Israel is seeking to address its refugee challenges by promoting the fiction that it hosts few, if any, Africans fleeing persecution, only “infiltrators” and “illegal work migrants.” The action is a troubling departure from Israel’s proud tradition of refugee protection.

Since its founding in 1948, the state of Israel has guaranteed that Jews would never again have to flee persecution with no place to find safety. Israel championed the rights of all refugees, and Israeli officials helped draft the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention and supported its 1967 Protocol, which together protect the rights of people around the world escaping persecution. This sympathy is rooted in not only the Holocaust but also thousands of years of Jewish history and religious tradition. The Jewish Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament, admonishes the faithful to “love the stranger as thyself, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” In the contemporary language of international refugee law, this command is expressed in an obligation not to return asylum seekers to countries wherethey would face persecution.

Throughout its short history, Israel has welcomed and absorbed Jewish immigrants, many of whom were forced to flee their countries of origin. Israel has been an unlikely place for non-Jews to seek refuge, but that changed in December 2005, when the Egyptian police violently repressed a peaceful demonstration of Sudanese refugees living in Cairo who were calling for better treatment. After at least 20 Sudanese were killed, some of the survivors crossed the Sinai and sought asylum in Israel . In subsequent years, thousands followed , mostfleeing abusive regimes in Sudan and Eritrea.

With the Netanyahu government’s recent construction of a 144-mile Sinai border fence between Israel and Egypt, the flow of asylum seekers has been reduced to a trickle. But Israel must still deal with the 55,000 asylum seekers within its borders, and the government’s statements, record and plans are troubling. Eli Yishai, who served as interior minister until this year, recklessly stoked anti-immigrant sentiment and xenophobia by repeatedly referring to asylum seekers as “infiltrators” and urging large-scale detention of migrants. In May 2012, he declared that south Tel Aviv, where many migrants reside, “has turned into the garbage can of the country.”

It has been virtually impossible for applicants to gain asylum in Israel: The approval rate, less than 1 percent, is the lowest of all developed countries. Moreover, the vast majority of Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel have not even been permitted to apply for asylum. Rather, they have remained in legal limbo without official authorization to work.

Recent anti-infiltration legislation provides broad authority to arrest and detain asylum seekers and other migrants for years. These measures have created fears of large-scale roundups, detentions and deportations.

This was the context in which the recent return of Eritreans, who had been detained by Israel, occurred. Although Israeli officials note that the Eritreans signed a form indicating agreement to return, it is not reasonable to call the returns “voluntary,” since detainees are informed by the government that they face the prospect of years in detention in Israel. As the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz this February, “agreement to return to Eritrea under a jail ultimatum cannot be considered voluntary by any criterion.”

The humanitarian stakes are high. According to Human Rights Watch, 80 percent of Eritrean asylum seekers worldwide are granted protection. That is no surprise: The Eritrean government is a brutal dictatorship that imposes forced and indefinite conscription and is guilty of appalling human rights abuses.

The tragedy is that there is another, humane and feasible course of action that does not rely on arrest and prolonged detention designed to compel migrants to agree to return. Whatever one’s view about the construction of the new border fence in the Sinai, it has significantly diminished the likelihood of future large-scale border crossings into Israel. Thus, Israel can institute prompt and meaningful status determination procedures for asylum seekers without fear that the flow from abroad will continue in large numbers. The job will not be easy, but it is wholly possible and would honor Israel’s historic commitment to international humanitarianism.

The Washington Post

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  • Hazhaz August 4, 2013

    ብርግጽ እስራኤል ከቢድ ናይ ደህንነት ሽግር ኣብ ከባቢኣ ኣለዋ። እዚ ድማ ምስ ኩለን ኣብ ዶባታ ዝረከባ ሃገራት ኣዕራብ ዝተኣማምን ናይ ሰላም ውዕል የብላን። እዚ ማለት ግን እስራኤል ኣብ ዶባታ ዑቕባ ዝሓቱ፣ ነዚ ኩሉ ኣደራዕን ሕሰምን ጭካነን ሃገራት ዓረብ ዝሰገሩ፣ ከተኽብር የብላን ማለት ኣይኮነን። እኳ ደኣ ድርብ ሓላፍነት ክትሽከም ጸቕጢ ክግበር ይግባእ።
    ኤርትራውያንሲ ካን መጻወቲ ራሻይዳን በደዊንን ኮይኖም ተሪፎም ፧
    በሉ ኣባሓጎታትና ኣይስምዑ። ካን ከምዚ ብላይ ጠይቂ ኣድጊ ትጽውት የብሉልና ኣለዉ።
    ” ኣድጊ ” እናበልና ንኻለኦት ንጸርፍ ኔርናስ፡ ንባዕልና ጠይቂ ናይ በደዊን ራሻይዳ ዓረብን እባ ኴንና።
    እቲ ቀደም ቀደም ብባሃማትና ከለና፡ እዋይ ሎምስ ክንደይ ዓያሹ እንድዮም ዝደግምዎ፤ “ዓረብና ኢና፤ ቃልስና ጸረ ኣሜሪካ ጸረ እስራኤልን ጸረ ጽዮንውያንን እዩ።“ እብሃል ኔሩ። ሓሻካ ዓያሹ።
    ሎሚ ኸ፧ እዛ ኹላ ጀብሃ ሻዕብያኣ ወረ ብዓረብ እዩ እቲ ሽሞም ዘይሓፍሩ፤ ኩላ ንኣሜሪካ ብሪጣንያ ኣውስትራልያ ሽወደን ጀርመን ሃዲማ ተዓቊባ ደቃ ተዕቢ ኣላ።
    ወዮ ዓረብ ይኣስሩና፡ ይጥሩዙና፡ ኩሊትና ይሰርቁ፡ ኣሕዋትናን ደቅናን ይዕምጹ፡ ወረ ኣሸሓት ገንዘብ የኽፍሉና፡ እንተኣበና ብረሲን ሓዊ ይትኩሱና፡ ጠባቢሖም ይድርብዩና። ሓደ ዝረብሕ ውድብ ወይ ሃገር ዓረብ ከማን ኣይእወየልናን።
    ወተሃደራት ሱዳን ግብጺ ብጥይት ቶኪሶም የውድቑና፡ ኣብ ምድረበዳ ይጉሕፉና።

  • ahmed saleh August 4, 2013

    Read the article carefully before you comment . “Refugees
    from Sudan demonostrating for fair treatment in Egypt
    had been killed by security forces in 1995 ” .
    My point is , injustices have no skin color, religion or to
    what ever you try put it . IN fact , the evil doers are humans among us rather the Satan we already know . It all starts from beginning of your own types deeds( Eritreans) , Face the truth like a man than hiding behind
    the curtain like innocent kid.

  • John August 4, 2013

    1995 most of the refugees from Sudan were from South Sudan and else where. They were not all muslims.

    • ahmed saleh August 5, 2013

      First of all the topic of the article have nothing to do with religion , race ….. , but rather advocating justice
      for those Eritrean refugees . Speaking about those Sudanese refugees events in Cairo (2005) , well , It is up to everyone choice either to be a convinced liar always with so many pressing cries to divert the needed attention or simply to focus how to find solution to the problems .
      Disguising yourself with various names to create am atmosphere of arrogance and divisiveness will only help
      to prolong the evil workings of those corrupted officials and their goons inside the country . My inner feeling
      never trust your purpose on this forum . However cowards neither can fight for the right of own people nor for .
      outsiders .

  • Zaul August 5, 2013

    The Role of Israel in Global Pentecostal Politics and prosperity theology;

    The connection between Pentecostals, Christian Zionism, Judaism and the State of Israel.

    Many people do not realize that Pentecostalism is the fastest growing Christian religion in the world with an estimated 497 million followers world-wide and expected to top 1 billion by 2025. This is a sharp contrast to the 13 million people who call themselves fundamentalists.

    It hasn’t gone unnoticed in Israel, who have wanted their share of this Pentecostal growth in their country. They see it as a serious economic contributor and a powerful political alliance.

    Pentecostalists have inherited and modernized the fundamentalist end-time system that believes the end of the world will come with the establishment of Israel as a geographical entity, with borders very similar to what was outlined in the Bible, the return of the Jews from exile, and Armageddon — a final war between Israel and all its enemies.

    Watch this interesting discussion on the subject.

  • Kombishtato August 5, 2013

    There is racism and xenophobia in Israel but why are some people so afraid to cover up the racism Eritreans face in the Middle east and the Arab world? The racism in the Arab world against blacks and Eritreans is so ugly, many of these wanabe cowards have run away from the Arab world to get refuge in the Christian world.
    Many black Africans have been saying this for years, it is only the ignorant and the volunteer Arab Abeeds who refused to accept this fact, that every black Arab had been crying for centuries.
    If the Arab does not recognize the existence of the black-Arab-Muslims among them, how the hell would they care about the poor Eritreans sold to Arab slavery in Egypt-Sinai or Libya, let alone to recognize the Arab-Abeed wanabes living in diaspora romanticizing the Arabists.
    One needs to see the life of abject poverty and racism the black enslaved Muslims live in the Arab world, including the black natives and refugees among Arabs whether this is in Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Kuwait, Yemen, Saudi …

    Here is last month’s Al Jazeera English about the Arab racism toward blacks in Egypt, only a person who wants to volunteer as an Arab Abeed would deny this:

    Hear it from the horse’s mouth:
    “This discrimination finds its was onto the street, and black Egyptians say they encounter constant social hurdles.

    Nada Zeitoun, a Nubian filmmaker from the upper Egypt city of Aswan, was recently denied service at a pharmacy in central Cairo because the pharmacist said he “didn’t accept money from black hands”.

    Zeitoun exposed the incident on social media and eventually the pharmacist was fired, but she says it was just one example of a broader culture of racism.”

  • Zaul August 5, 2013

    I think we’re all aware about the racism Arabs and Israelis have shown towards our Eritrean brothers and Sister and black-skinned people in general.

    What I worry about is Wahhabist and Zionist Pentes importing the Israel-Palestine conflict to Eritrea/Africa. We have enough problems as it is already.

  • weygud August 5, 2013

    Who killed outspoken Eritreans? To mention few recently are: wodemichael, sium Habtemariam, Mohamed Hagos, Fikre, n others. What is to be done?. Need badly solution.