Treating Migrants in Israel Like Chattel

In a Supreme Court hearing against the amendment to Israel's Infiltration Law, the state made an ambiguous announcement that a third state will accept Eritrean citizens currently living in Israel.

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As if it were an export company, the State of Israel is trying to ship tens of thousands of people from Eritrea and Sudan to other countries, out of sight and out of mind. The main thing is that they will fly away from here. Price isn’t particularly important nor is their fate in their new countries. Israeli imperviousness, the turning away from the distress of others, marks a new stage that is far from surprising. This is a natural progression from the systematic disregard for claims of asylum that were filed, to the embarrassing legal amendment that enabled the detainment in prison facilities and incitement bordering on dehumanization. What is being discussed aren’t humans, but objects.

In a Supreme Court hearing held yesterday against the amendment to the Infiltration Law, the state made an announcement shrouded in mystery that Israel had reached an agreement with a third state that will accept Eritrean citizens currently living in Israel. It also said that there were ongoing advanced-stage talks with two additional countries that will be used as way stations for Sudanese citizens. It appears that not just the judges and the petitioners were surprised to hear about the old-new initiative; Foreign Ministry officials also didn’t have any details to transmit.

The international convention relating to the Status of Refugees, of which Israel is a signatory but does all it can to skirt, states that while it is permissible to transfer refugees who reached one country to another country, there is also a list of conditions that must be met to make this step possible. Among the conditions are: recognition of the people as refugees, the consent of these people ‏(true consent, it’s worth saying, not the kind achieved retroactively or while they are still imprisoned‏), an assurance that the new country will protect their human rights, and an additional assurance that the refugee status in the receiving country will come to an end.

The way the state has dealt with refugees and labor migrants from Africa until now indicates that it is doubtful these conditions and limitations will be respected. To the contrary, Israel doesn’t recognize these people as refugees. And just several months ago it admitted that it had returned, by way of a third country, more than 1,000 Sudanese citizens back to Sudan − which has vowed to punish any citizen who had been in Israel.

During the court hearing yesterday, it became apparent that a much larger number, some 2,100 people, were returned in this manner. Several hundred of them were in prison facilities when they were removed from Israel without any check of their personal background. What was the fate of these people? State Prosecutor Yochi Gnessin responded in the High Court of Justice that “nothing happened to them,” but she didn’t reveal a single additional detail. Whoever believes that these people were returned of their own will to Sudan is welcome to continue believing in the state’s attempt to lull and soothe. Our hands haven’t spilled this blood.

The assurance that a third state will accept African citizens that came to Israel isn’t new. In recent years the state has reported to the courts a number of times of impending agreements like this. For example, in January 2011 the High Court ruled on a petition filed by human rights and refugee aid organizations requesting that asylum seekers be provided with work permits. The state prosecutor stated then: “Efforts are being made to find target countries to which it will be possible to ... expel those who belong to this group,” it says in the court ruling.

In December 2012, the High Court held a hearing on another petition regarding the Interior Ministry’s policy to arrest indefinitely − also on the basis of the Infiltration Prevention Law − those who were suspects in criminal case, but without there having been any public interest in bringing them to judgment. “It has been claimed that despite the ‘no deportation’ policy for Eritrean nationals, there exists a course for deportation to third countries, and it is not necessary ‏(to release the woman prisoner‏) because it won’t be possible to deport the appellant to another country.” Sanait Tesfauneh, an Eritrean citizen who was the focus of this appeal, was arrested in August 2012. She remains under arrest today.

Migrants in southern Tel Aviv.Credit: Ilan Assayag

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