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Understanding the Israeli deportation of African asylum seekers

Israel recently announced an immigration policy that would forcibly relocate African asylum seekers, specifically those from Sudan and Eritrea. Despite the Knesset’s assertion that these flows are almost exclusively a result of economic migration, both countries are recognised as centres of ongoing conflict and intimidation, deserving of protected status. Israel’s deportation policy would provide these asylum seekers with an impossible choice: leave ‘voluntarily’ or face indefinite detention.

Civil society organisations in Israel consider the current situation to be a true test of Israel’s ‘Jewish’ character, pressuring the government to reflect on the historical narrative of the Jewish people who relied heavily on the ability to seek asylum during times of persecution.

Here’s what you should know.

It is illegal to forcibly remove refugees.

Under the 1951 UN Protocol on Refugees (which was established after WWII led to the widespread displacement of Europeans after the Holocaust) signatories commit to an obligation of non-refoulement. This means that once granted refugee status, international law grants refugees the right not to be returned to a country where they face a reasonable fear of persecution.

Israel has thus attempted to evade its obligations by refusing to grant asylum seekers the legal title of ‘refugee’. It has done so through drawn out, bureaucratic processing of asylum seekers in which it grants 2-month temporary visas that must be constantly renewed. Since 2009, the state has granted only 11 Africans refugee status (out of thousands of applications) which demonstrates a deliberately skewed acceptance rate.

African asylum seekers are being used as scapegoats for poor governance.

In south Tel Aviv, where most of the African immigrant communities are concentrated, residents complain of poor services and insecurity in comparison to the bustling tech-hub of north Tel Aviv. The Israeli government has neglected the South due to the burgeoning business opportunities in the north, but has used the presence of African immigrants to shift blame.

The government has argued that the presence of Africans has burdened the state and that it is their responsibility to look after their own citizens first. This scapegoating strategy is not unique to Israel, but has proved largely effective when one considers that 65.2% of Israeli Jews express moderate or great concern with the presence of African workers despite 79.5% of respondents admitting that they live in areas with “only a few, very few, or no” refugees or migrant workers.

Race matters.

The Israeli government has vehemently denied that race plays a role in their treatment of refugees, citing the forced deportation of white refugees from Georgia and other parts of Eastern Europe as proof.

Their inflammatory labelling of African asylum seekers as ‘infiltrators’ and as a “cancer in the body” of Israel combined with targeted practices of forcibly sterilising African women upon arrival indicate otherwise. This speaks to a broader problem of racism within Israeli society, which has been documented extensively in their treatment of their own Jewish Ethiopian community.

‘Voluntary’ deportations have already begun.

Fearing indefinite detention, many young men (who are the main targets of this deportation policy) have taken the Israeli government’s offer of assisted deportation. Many of these asylum seekers live harrowing 2-month cycles of anxiety and fear, knowing that when they go to visa offices to renew their document they may receive deportation letters instead.

Those who will be hardest hit are the Dreamers: young Africans who have grown up in Israel, attended school and university and who want to contribute to Israeli society. They are in danger of being deported to countries where they know neither the language nor relate to the culture, making it difficult to integrate.

There is hope.

Despite the Israeli government’s continued lack of respect for international law, civil society organisations both locally and internationally have dug in to protect African asylum seekers.

From religious organisations which seek to remind the Israeli state of its religious obligation to protect those in need to Israeli pilots who have refused to fly planes which would deport asylum seekers; there has been a groundswell of support for these marginalised communities.

The international community must therefore continue to apply pressure to the Israeli government and support the work of grassroots organisations that are currently assisting asylum seekers. We must reaffirm that African lives do indeed matter.

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