Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar confirmed Tuesday for the first time that African asylum seekers are leaving Israel for other countries.
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Two weeks ago, Haaretz reported that Israel has secretly been flying dozens of asylum seekers to Uganda, including Sudanese nationals.
“The departure for third countries, on the basis of agreements we have reached, is of limited scope, in the order of dozens,” Sa’ar told journalists at a press conference Tuesday.
“It’s a relative minority of the infiltrators who are leaving, but in this I’m not counting infiltrators who leave of their own free will to other, additional countries,” he added, apparently referring to other African countries with which Israel has not signed agreements.
Questioned about the lack of transparency in the “voluntary departure” program, Sa’ar said he does “not think it would be helpful to expand” on the issue, beyond saying that “everything is done after the attorney general has checked and approved it, out of these infiltrators’ own choice and free will.”
Sa’ar attacked human rights organizations that object to the government’s policy, saying anyone who wants to leave Israel should have the right to do so. “Even the radical organizations that are driving and assisting protest activities against the government’s policy won’t camp out under the belly of the plane and prevent him from going,” he said. “This is the normative, normal situation. There’s a kind of new paternalism that tells the infiltrators where it’s proper or improper, from their standpoint, to go.
“Everyone who leaves, whether to his country of origin or a third country, leaves of his own free will, leaves by choice,” he continued, stressing that Israel does not deport Sudanese or Eritrean nationals. These groups comprise most of the African asylum seekers, and Israel offers them group protection due to the difficult situations in their home countries. “There are some who tell them why this isn’t voluntary, but they are leaving voluntarily,” Sa’ar added.
The Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority has thus far refused to give a breakdown by country of origin and destination of those leaving under the new program. Sa’ar also refused to give precise data, saying he didn’t have it. But he said most of those who leave return to their own country, and of those, most are Sudanese rather than Eritrean.
“There are more, at least at this stage, going to Sudan than Eritrea, but there’s also an increase in the number of those leaving who ask to go to Eritrea,” he said.
He added that he expects more asylum seekers to depart in March, boasting that “Every week now, there are fewer infiltrators in Israel.” This exodus, he said, is due to government policy, including a law allowing asylum seekers to be sent to the new open detention facility at Holot and an increase in the grants given those who leave voluntarily.
In February, 1,705 African asylum seekers left, up from 765 in January, 325 in December and 63 in November.
Responding to a question from Haaretz, Sa’ar rejected claims that Israel doesn’t properly examine the applications of Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers. All such applications are examined, he said, but priority is given to applications by nationals of other countries, who can be deported if they don’t qualify.
He did not discuss the large gap between Israel and the West in terms of granting asylum to Eritreans and Sudanese. So far, only three Eritreans have received asylum here.
But few of the Africans have even submitted asylum requests, he said, “and when you examine the requests themselves, you see that most are labor migrants − and today, that’s finding expression in the great exodus. I’ve never seen any refugee camp in the world where [people] rush to their country of origin if their lives are in danger.
“So you have to understand: True, they really want to reside, live, settle and work in Tel Aviv, but when the policy changes and you see the change in the results, you ought to conclude something from that, if you’re intellectually honest.”
The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants responded that “When a country uses every means to make staying in it hard, oppressive and impossible, the choice to leave isn’t free at all.”
The government openly admits that it is doing everything possible to avoid granting asylum, the organization charged, and it is sending thousands of asylum seekers to Holot for periods of unlimited duration. Moreover, due to shorter hours at the Interior Ministry, asylum seekers have been unable to renew their visas since December; consequently, they’re being fired from their jobs and are at risk of being jailed.