A Light Unto Some Nations

How Israel's policy toward African asylum-seekers transformed it from a land of refuge into a land of deportation.

African asylum-seekers protest at the Holot detention center in Israel's Negev Desert, on Feb. 17, 2014. (Jack Guez/AFP/ Getty Images)
African asylum-seekers protest at the Holot detention center in Israel's Negev Desert, on Feb. 17, 2014. (Jack Guez/AFP/ Getty Images)

Last month, Israel’s government initiated a sweeping new effort to expel tens of thousands of unwanted African asylum-seekers. Officials offered them a choice: indefinite detention in Israel or a one-way ticket to an unnamed third country — most likely Rwanda or Uganda.

The first seven men swept up as a result of the new policy chose prison. Now many of the roughly 34,000 asylum-seekers in Israel will face the same difficult choice as the government aims to force most of them out by the end of March.

“It’s a very worrying situation,” said Taj Haroun, who fled Sudan during the genocide in Darfur and has been living in Israel for a decade. “Almost every individual here is afraid. We live in this uncertainty. We’re not sure what will happen to us.”

For years, the Israeli government has conducted a shadowy program to rid itself of asylum-seekers from Eritrea and Sudan — a process guided by secret deals with African governments that agree to take in the asylum-seekers, only to discard them illegally in third countries, including war zones like South Sudan.

Now Israel appears to be ramping up that clandestine program. In the past, asylum-seekers were deported in small groups; now, the Israeli government is looking to kick out thousands in just a few months. And whereas the earlier program was at least ostensibly voluntary, Israel is now offering the asylum-seekers only one alternative to deportation: detention with no known end date or guarantee of asylum.

Human rights groups have long insisted that Israel’s policy violates international law. They say the latest iteration adds another breach, this time by ignoring a recommendation from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on the use of detention as a last resort.

African asylum-seekers first began entering Israel in large numbers in the mid-2000s. The bulk of the arrivals were from Eritrea, a country with a policy of forced military conscription that U.N. observers have compared to slavery. Others came from Sudan, many of them, like Haroun, survivors of the genocide in Darfur. Most made their way into Israel by crossing the Sinai desert, where they ran the risk of being caught and tortured by human traffickers or shot by Egyptian border guards.

Israel officially sealed its border with Egypt in 2013, after almost 65,000 foreign nationals had entered the country, according to the Israeli Ministry of Interior. By then, the campaign to expel them was already well underway.

As the numbers increased, Israelis living near asylum-seekers and politicians courting votes in those areas began to make largely unfounded complaints that the asylum-seekers were committing crimes, robbing locals of jobs, and destabilizing the neighborhoods where they settled. The subtext of these allegations was a fear that their presence would transform Israel into a less Jewish state.

In a February speech, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said that without the fence on the Egyptian border, “We would be seeing here a kind of creeping conquest from Africa.” Shaked, a member of the Jewish Home party, has long pushed an unapologetically nationalist agenda which includes settlement expansion, annexation of the West Bank, and aggressive moves to ensure that Israel retains a Jewish majority.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government has adopted some of Shaked’s positions and has made it virtually impossible for African asylum-seekers to actually receive asylum. Since 2009, Israel has granted refugee status to just one Sudanese and 10 Eritreans, recording an acceptance rate within those communities of less than 1 percent, according to UNHCR.

Instead, African asylum-seekers have been allowed to remain in Israel on temporary visas, which they must renew every few months. That status makes it difficult for them to find jobs or housing, forcing them to crowd into apartments together or to camp out in parks or other public areas.

As anti-immigrant sentiment has mounted, the government has made life even more difficult for the asylum-seekers. Since 2013, thousands have been randomly summoned to a detention facility in the middle of the Negev Desert. Having stripped the asylum-seekers of their freedom, Israeli officials began to whisper about a scheme to send them to Uganda or Rwanda — though neither country has officially confirmed the deal. The asylum seekers received $3,500, a one-way ticket, and the promise, on arrival, of a right to work and an opportunity to rebuild their lives.

But as Foreign Policy previously documented in a year-long investigation, many who agreed to the transfers were stripped of their travel documents and encouraged to make illegal border crossings into third countries, including Uganda, South Sudan, and Kenya. Some of the people who agreed to the deportation have landed in the hands of the Islamic State or died attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.

The Israeli government has publicly dismissed those stories and insisted that the asylum-seekers who arrive in the unnamed third countries are safe and protected, though in private Israeli officials admit they don’t have the capacity to monitor the condition of asylum-seekers once they leave Israel. That means Jerusalem cannot guarantee that it has not violated the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention’s prohibition on forcibly returning refugees to countries where they might face persecution.

The situation has only grown more fraught since then. “Now I think it’s the worst,” said Liat Bolzman, an independent researcher who has been collecting the stories of people who accepted the earlier deportation offers. “This is the lowest point of everything until now, of making their lives miserable.”

Dror Sadot, the spokesperson for the Hotline for Refugees and Migrant Workers, a refugee protection organization, said the broad sweep of the new order has galvanized opposition within Israel, where many people have relatives who once sought protection from persecution. Protesters have organized marches and demonstrations. Rabbis have publicly offered to hide any asylum-seekers at risk of deportation. And in Holot, hundreds of detainees have staged a hunger strike in solidarity with the seven men now facing indefinite detention.

Activists have also ramped up pressure on the alleged partner countries, Rwanda and Uganda, urging them to refuse to prolong any agreement with Israel.

Last month, Rwandan Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo, speaking to a small crowd of academics and students in Berlin, claimed her government had no knowledge of Israel’s plans to deport more asylum-seekers and no agreement to accept them. Her government has long sought to avoid questions about what it might be getting in return for accepting the asylum-seekers.

“What Israel does is not our business,” she said. “But whomever comes to us of their own free will and they’re coming to Rwanda, we will receive them.”

She demurred, though, when pressured to say whether asylum-seekers who decided on deportation over indefinite detention could be considered as exercising free will. “The forcing doesn’t happen in Rwanda,” she said. “That’s an Israeli issue.”

A recent court order has offered asylum-seekers one potential foothold. On Feb. 15, an Israeli appeals tribunal ruled that desertion from the Eritrean military is a legitimate asylum claim — a position the government had earlier rejected. That may force officials to reconsider hundreds of asylum applications and delay any deportations of Eritreans.

Still activists like Haroun fret that the government will push ahead with the deportations eventually, even if it means getting tied up in court.

As he told me recently, “All the policies during all of these years have been leading to this.”

Andrew Green is a freelance journalist based in Berlin. Previously, he was based in sub-Saharan Africa for more than five years.