Israel Thinks African Asylum Seekers Aren’t Human Beings

The government will stop at nothing to expel African seekers - despite court rulings and the dangers they face back home.

Saharonim - Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Refugees and migrant workers at the Saharonim prison near the border with Egypt, Jan. 15, 2012. Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Israeli government won’t stop at anything to expel the African asylum seekers who have made their way here. First, it tried to imprison them without trial in the Saharonim Prison. When the High Court of Justice forbade that, the government concocted a new scheme: It shortened the period of detention at Saharonim and set up a new, “open” facility at Holot, where it sought to detain asylum seekers indefinitely on the pretext that it wasn’t a jail, but a “residential facility.” The High Court of Justice was once again forced to raise its voice and declare that it was the same lady in different clothing — a violation of the same prohibition: Imprisoning people without trial.

Twice, therefore, the High Court has reminded the state of what it ought to know: Asylum seekers – to whom everyone agrees the principle of non-refoulement applies, meaning they can’t be deported to their home countries of Eritrea and Sudan because of the dangers they would face there – cannot be jailed without trial. It’s permissible to jail foreigners in Israel prior to deporting them, but only when a legal basis for their deportation exists.

Instead of internalizing that message, the government once again concocted a new scheme: It submitted legislation that allows it to continue jailing asylum seekers at Saharonim and Holot, but for shorter periods than previously, and it also “prettied up” Holot by canceling the noon roll-call that inmates previously had to attend.

A High Court petition against this law is currently pending and the court will presumably come down on the side of the law and justice by telling the state, for the third time, that what it’s doing is forbidden.

At the same time, the government instituted a new policy of deporting asylum seekers to Uganda and Rwanda, without having obtained clear guarantees of their safety and freedom in those countries. In the past, the state depicted this policy as “voluntary departure,” but it has now adopted a clear policy under which anyone who refuses to be deported will be jailed at Saharonim.

The Be’er Sheva District Court’s refusal to issue an injunction forbidding their imprisonment will allow the state to resume jailing asylum seekers – people who haven’t broken any law and who do not belong in jail.

Information about the bitter fate of asylum seekers who did leave for Rwanda and Uganda was submitted to the court, but it deemed this information insufficient. It also wasn’t convinced by the expert opinion of Galia Sabar, a professor of African studies, who said the deportees can’t work and support themselves in those countries. The court thereby failed to protect the asylum seekers, and it must be hoped that its decision will be overturned in subsequent stages of the legal proceedings.

Nevertheless, the most worrisome question about this whole affair is this: Why does the State of Israel think African asylum seekers aren’t human beings, and that therefore it’s permissible to dump them in whatever country is willing to take them under cover of a shady deal? The right thing to do would be to enable the asylum seekers to live in dignity and freedom here in Israel as long as circumstances don’t allow them to return to their homelands.