Israel set to deport 2,000 Ivory Coast asylum-seekers
No UN decision on refugee status, but Foreign Ministry calls situation 'stable.'
Bernard Abett sat in his spacious living room in Tel Aviv watching an African television channel he receives via satellite dish. A Christmas tree still stood in the room, whose matching furniture made clear that this wasn't a temporary residence.
"I didn't come here to stay," Abett said. "I have a home, and it's in Ivory Coast. That's where my heart is, and that's where I'll return. But right now, my life is in danger."
Abett came to Israel in 1997 in search of financial opportunity. In 2000, having found nothing but cleaning jobs, he decided to go home. But then Ivory Coast's civil war erupted and Abett decided he was safer here. Like other Ivorians, he could do so because the UN High Commissioner for Refugees had granted Ivorians collective protection from deportation while the unrest in their country continued.
But three weeks ago, the Population and Immigration Authority announced that this group protection would expire at the end of January, because the fighting had ended, and the Foreign Ministry had determined that refugees could return safely. It advised the 2,000 Ivorians in the country to prepare to leave within a month, adding that if they didn't leave voluntarily, they would be deported come February.
The authority justified this extremely short notice on the grounds that it had warned Ivorians to prepare for departure back in May, even though at that time it didn't specify a deadline.
Abett, who lives here with his girlfriend and her 3-year-old daughter, said he heard about the planned deportation only on January 10, when he paid his monthly visit to the authority to get his visa renewed.
"They told me this was the last time," he said. "I was very surprised, because they always said the state was discussing the matter but there's no decision. And after years, you don't expected to be told one morning, 'Pack up, you have only 20 days left.'"
This isn't nearly enough time, he added, because people have to give notice to their employers and their landlord, "and the late notice will cost us thousands of shekels that we won't get [from our employers]."
Abett believes most Ivorians will nevertheless depart by the deadline, for fear of arrest. But while UNHCR and human rights organizations say that Ivorians from the country's north - where Ivory Coast's new president comes from - generally feel safe returning, members of certain southern tribes identified with the former president are still at risk.
"A few months ago, my brother was kidnapped and killed because he was a political activist," Abett said. "Immediately afterward, my mother and sister fled because they feared for their lives. I'm not politically active but, because of my brother, they might hunt down everyone in the family to get revenge. In the coming days, I'll apply for asylum in the hope that they'll understand my situation."
UNHCR says it is not currently encouraging refugees to return to Ivory Coast. At a meeting of the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers last week, Sharon Harel of UNHCR said that, while the situation in Ivory Coast has definitely improved, there are still reports of severe human rights violations there.
Moreover, she said, in previous cases where collective protection was ended, Israel generally gave people a year's notice - time enough to wind down their affairs in an orderly fashion.
But Israel is not the first to begin repatriation. UN data shows that Norway and Sweden began repatriating Ivorians in June 2011 and, since August, UNHCR itself has signed agreements to voluntarily repatriate Ivorians with the governments of Liberia, Ghana, Guinea and Togo - though not Israel. Altogether, UNHCR expects some 50,000 Ivorians to return this year.
Over the past year, 24 percent of Ivorians who sought asylum in Europe on an individual basis received it, compared to only 0.1 percent of those who did so in Israel over the past three years. Germany, for instance, approved 10 out of 45 asylum applications in 2011; Spain approved 30 out of 115; and England, which isn't yet repatriating Ivorians, approved 20 out of 130. Israel, in contrast, approved only two out of 1,500 requests in 2009-2011.
Hundreds of asylum requests
Yapi Yves-Cesaire came to Israel in 1996. He met and married his wife, a fellow Ivorian, here and they now have two children - Yafit and Ariel. "We had no doubt their names would be Israeli," he said. "They are part of the country that protected us and treated us well. And that's how we'd like to end it - but only once it's safe."
His parents were killed during the fighting in 2000, and more recently his sister was badly injured. "She was in the village when the new president's army came," he explained. "Because he's from the north, and knows our southern village supported the former president, his people attacked anyone who dared to open their mouth, including her. Today, she and my brother are in Ghana, and nobody is thinking of returning until we know for sure the situation has improved ... Two of my friends who returned in 2009 were killed there. I don't want that to be our future."
But the short notice is a problem for those southerners who want to request asylum, because the department that approves asylum applications has only nine employees and will have trouble reviewing the expected hundreds of applications in a mere 20 to 30 days.
Nor is danger the only problem. Amido Kita, who has been here since 2008, is currently suing the hotel where he worked for three years over unpaid wages. The case is slated to be heard in May, but if the Population Authority has its way, he won't be here. "I worked for three years without being paid, and if they deport me I'll never get my pay and my rights, which are worth hundreds of thousands of shekels," he said. "I just want them to let me attend the hearing, and once I get the money I'll leave Israel. I didn't come here to stay, but only to escape Ivory Coast."
The Hotline for Migrant Workers asked the authority to let Kita and 23 other Ivorians in special circumstances stay for another few months, but the authority rejected all the applications collectively, without studying each one individually, and without offering any reason for its decision. The hotline now plans to appeal the decision to the courts, as it "mainly serves unjust employers who broke the law and didn't pay their workers," said its attorney, Asaf Weitzen. "This decision also gives these employers an incentive to continue breaking the law."
The Population Authority declined to explain why it rejected the applications for extra time, how the asylum requests could be processed in time or why it doesn't just extend the deadline for everyone. Ivorians, it said, were given "orderly notice back in May" and should have used the time to prepare. Any individual request for an extension or exemption "will be studied," it said.