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In Israel's trade catalog, arms and asylum seekers are equal commodities

With arbitrary arrest and detention, forcible transfer, withholding of basic human rights, the imposition of birth control measures and now an arms-for-asylum-seekers deal which amounts to little more than human trafficking, Israel has become a theater of horrors for Africans.

By Natasha Roth

Sudanese immigrants pose in front of an enlarged photo of the Saharonim Prison, in which 2,000 African immigrants are being detained, during the International Refugee Day event in Tel Aviv on June 20, 2013. (Photo by: Keren Manor/Activestills.org)

A report in yesterday’s Yedioth Aharonoth (originally in Hebrew, and translated into English for their website) revealed that the Israeli government is on the verge of closing a deal with several African countries which would see them furnished with arms and military expertise, in exchange for accepting thousands of asylum seekers currently residing in Israel. Once again, the government has shrugged off any pretence of honoring its commitments under the UN Refugee Conventions. Once again, it is making a mockery of the concept that it needs to abide by international law.

That this is a war on asylum seekers and human rights is self-evident. But it is also a war on dignity and an assault on human memory and conscience. Whether or not the deal goes through, the fact remains that the Israeli government has seriously considered forcibly dispatching thousands of Africans, to a country not of their choosing, as part of a trade agreement. This brings up a historical recollection of such offensiveness that it is difficult to address it directly. Furthermore, the overlooked “commodity” in this proposed deal is space – for that is what the Israeli government will receive for its part in the potential bargain. This reported agreement is nothing more than a chapter in Israel’s playbook for ‘making room’ and homogenizing; it is persecution as ‘preservation.’ Doubtless one of Netanyahu’s spokespersons will find an appropriate moniker to try and lend some legitimacy to the proceedings (when the Serbs did the same thing in the 1990s, they dubbed it “ethnic cleansing”).

As ever, when it comes to the government’s handling of such matters, the news did not arrive in isolation. Also rolling off the presses yesterday was a statement from the police (Hebrew) announcing the arrests of hundreds of asylum seekers suspected of minor offences. Their detention, which according to a source at the Population and Immigration Border Authority will continue until at least January 2015, has been enabled by a new procedure approved by Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein last week. Another affront to the rule of law in Israel, the procedure allows for the detainment of asylum seekers linked to petty crimes, irrespective of whether there is evidence to convict them. Yesterday’s news also brought confirmation of another procedure, again approved by the attorney-general, allowing for Eritreans and Sudanese who sign “voluntary return” documents to be deported back to their country of origin. This is, of course, the appearance of choice rather than a genuine choice, since the alternative is indefinite detention in Israel – which is not a choice at all. Perhaps the attorney-general has been reading about Thomas Hobson in between signing punitive regulations against asylum seekers. This is mafia-like behavior from the Israeli government – seeking to eliminate what it has identified as a problem situation by making the individuals concerned an offer they can’t refuse.

It must be clarified that the signing of voluntary return documents by asylum seekers does not provide a shred of validity to the assertions that those arriving here from Sudan and Eritrea are not at risk should they be returned. Rather, it is an indictment of Israel’s increasingly barbarous rap-sheet in its dealings with asylum seekers (and Africans in general, for let us not forget the ongoing Depo-Provera scandal surrounding Ethiopian immigrants). Arbitrary arrest and detention, forcible transfer, withholding of basic human rights (inter alia, work, healthcare and education), imposition of birth control measures, and now, with the news of the arms-and-asylum-seekers deal, what amounts to little more than human trafficking – Israel has become a theater of horrors for Africans, and the recent hunger strike by Eritrean prisoners in the Saharonhim facility (which, along with the other desert internment camp – Ktziot – has held more than 1,000 Eritrean prisoners for over a year) demonstrates the gravity of the government’s actions. These prisoners are visited every few days by immigration officers who inform them that their only way out of prison is to go back to their homeland. The mental duress and hemorrhaging of faith caused by the prospect of endless detention and limitless persecution in Israel has pushed imprisoned Eritreans to consider the lethal implications of returning to their home country a preferable option. But no matter what explanation they give for their desire to go back, no legal procedure will make the return of Eritrean national-service evaders a ‘voluntary return.’ As one detainee involved in the strike wrote after the event, “I am a witness that everybody lost any hope and patience. Therefore we chose this difficult decision: to achieve a solution or die.”

Deporting, exporting, arms, asylum seekers, trafficking, persecution, prevarication and underhand tactics – this is thug life, Israeli government-style. Welcome to the only democracy in the Middle East.

Natasha Roth, a British immigrant to Israel, is a researcher and former coordinator at the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC), a non-profit organization founded in 2004 by refugees and Israeli citizens to assist, support and empower refugees and asylum seekers in Israel. 

Related: 
Eritrean asylum seekers on hunger strike to protest detention without trial
Fact checking racist incitement against African refugees in Israel
When ‘black’ becomes synonymous with ‘infiltrator’ 

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Kolumn9

      According to the author Israeli authorities just about have the obligation to open the borders and provide work, education and healthcare for the inevitable influx of millions of poor people seeking a better life in a country with a standard of living several orders of magnitude greater than that of their own countries.

      The illegal migrants that are being held in Saharonim are provided with the full extent of their rights under international law. They are provided with shelter, food and healthcare. If Israel decides to move all the illegal migrants out from Tel Aviv to Saharonim and similar facilities it would be acting within its full rights. Israel is under no obligation to provide them with jobs or a path to residency or citizenship.

      If safety and food is insufficient for them then they are free to leave. If they believe that they found a better place (including their home countries) where they are able to pursue a more productive life, then again they are free to leave. Israel is under no obligation to strive to be an inviting place for those that come uninvited and cross the borders illegally.

      I must admit though, calling the deportation of illegal aliens ‘ethnic cleansing’ is an impressive act of rape of the human rights vocabulary. I am assuming your next article will designate it either genocide or a holocaust in order to cover all the bases of hyperbole.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kanadi

        Kolumn9 here demonstrates a dearth of knowledge of international refugee law, and even less knowledge of the current refugee situation in Israel.

        ” Israeli authorities just about have the obligation to open the borders…”

        No, Israel has the obligation to fulfill its responsibilities under the international refugee law to which it is party and which it helped to draft, which means that if someone enters the country, presents themselves to the authorities promptly and claims asylum, they are not in the country illegally, they are an asylum seekers and need to have their claim heard. No amount of repeating the words “illegal immigrant” makes that an accurate description.

        “The illegal migrants that are being held in Saharonim are provided with the full extent of their rights under international law”

        Here are a few quotes from the UNHCR policy on detention:

        “detention must not be arbitrary,
        and any decision to detain must be
        based on an assessment of the
        individual’s particular circumstances”

        “The right to seek asylum must be respected”

        “The rights To liberty and security
        of person and to freedom of movement apply to asylum-seekers”

        Here is a link to the source document. You might learn something: http://www.unhcr.org/505b10ee9.html

        “Israel is under no obligation to strive to be an inviting place for those that come uninvited and cross the borders illegally”

        As already described, they have not crossed the border illegally, they have come to seek asylum. Neither do they need to have come directly from their country of origin. The UNHCR has explicitly stated that having come through a second country does not in any way remove the obligation from the third country from providing asylum.

        I do agree with you that language should not be used simply for the purposes of hyperbole and inflammation (ahem…rape..ahem). But you can’t simply make claims about international law without backing them up. In personal conversation with dozens of African asylum seekers, I have heard personal stories that would harrow your soul. If after speaking to some of these people you still feel they don’t deserve asylum, I’d question your humanity. The world over, Eritrean asylum seekers are accepted by the most thorough Refugee Status Determination Processes at a rate of 80-98 percent. Sudanese asylum seekers are accepted at similar rates, the two groups making up around 95 percent of Israel’s African migration.

        I would like to hear, if you don’t mind, why you feel that the situation is different in Israel than the rest of the world, warranting your assertion that the people who have crossed Israel’s border are nothing but economic migrants, and don’t fall into the category of refugee under article one of the International Refugee Convention. You surely must know something that the refugee boards from Canada to the US to Germany to Sweden don’t know? I assume you’ve done careful independent research?

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Oh lordie. I had a great response but the page reloaded and I lost it. Let me give you the highlights.
          1) People that cross the borders of a sovereign country without permission to do so are illegal migrants. Screaming ‘asylum seeker’ doesn’t change that and it is quite silly to denote every person that crosses a border an ‘asylum seeker’.

          2) Your quotes are from a document published by the UNHCR. The UNHCR is not a legal body with the authority to interpret international law. It exists to coordinate with sovereign states on their refugee policies but has no capacity whatsoever to override designations made by sovereign states or to insist on its interpretation.

          3) IRC chapter one:
          “A refugee, according to the Convention,
          is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin
          owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion,
          nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”

          The really funny part is that many of the ‘asylum seekers’ in Israel tend to claim that they have sought shelter in order to avoid the draft in Eritrea. Having avoided the draft in Eritrea they now fear persecution upon return. This might be sufficient to grant them some kind of protection from expulsion, but does it actually qualify them in any way as refugees? IRC chapter one says no.

          Then there are the migrants from Sudan who claim that their current presence in Israel makes it dangerous for them to return to their country. In addition to the fact that Israel can’t expel Sudanese to Sudan because Israel is in a state of war with that country this might be a valid reason to not expel them to Sudan. Does it however qualify them as refugees? IRC chapter one says no.

          Then there are those terrible stories one hears about the violence and torture that the migrants experienced on their way to Israel. Now it is sad and all, but does it qualify them as refugees? IRC chapter one still says no.

          4) Surely I must be out of my mind in the way I am reading relatively simple sentences written in English. Perhaps it is because it is not my native language? Maybe they taught something in 3rd grade English class in the US which I missed which would totally changes the meaning of the words in IRC chapter one? I don’t know. All I can do is read these documents and use common sense. I apologize profusely for my humble abilities.

          5)As to why other countries recognize such people as refugees… The world over there are countries who do stupid things. For example there are several countries that built suburbs of their capitals and populated them with people they classified as ‘refugees’. These countries then provide such suburbs with huge financial subsidies because massive numbers of the residents of said suburbs choose not to work or to make an effort to integrate in their new countries. Then nativist political parties rise up to challenge an immigration policy which leads to an outcome where the previous ‘natives’ can’t recognize their countries anymore. This leads to just absolutely hilarious situations. The reason why the US, Germany and Sweden choose to pursue very liberal policies on refugee claims is because they are rich and secure enough to be able to afford to do so. Israel is not.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Mike

      Great article Natasha.

      Reply to Comment

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