Despite a government decision to speed up the repatriation of the remaining members of the Ethiopian Falashmura community, Israeli immigration authorities have taken little, if any, action to assure its implementation, according to members of a Knesset delegation who recently returned from a visit to East Africa.
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As a result of the ongoing delays, they warn, thousands of candidates for immigration stranded in transit centers in Gondar and Addis Ababa – the two main Jewish centers in Ethiopia – currently face a severe humanitarian crisis.
“It was a very painful trip for me,” said MK Eli Alalouf, chairman of the Knesset Committee for Labor, Welfare and Health and a member of the delegation.
Many of the Falashmura he had encountered on the trip, he said, were suffering from illnesses and malnutrition. “It is simply a situation of total neglect, and there is no reason for this whatsoever,” said Alalouf, a member of the center-right Kulanu party, which is part of the ruling coalition. “This is a Jewish community in every respect, but we in Israel don’t relate to them as Jews, I hate to say this, but it is because we are racist.”
Last August, the government approved a plan to bring to Israel by the end of November 1,300 Falashmura — the name given to members of Ethiopia’s Jewish community who were pressured to convert to Christianity in past centuries. In accordance with this decision, the Ministry of Interior was instructed to send officials to Ethiopia for the purpose of vetting candidates. According to a list of criteria drawn up by the government, any member of the Falashmura community with immediate family in Israel is eligible to immigrate.
Yet according to members of the Knesset delegation, the Ministry of Interior has failed to follow through. Not only did it wait months before sending emissaries to Ethiopia to begin the vetting process, they say, but it has yet to declare any candidates eligible for immigration.
The government decision, approved on August 11, gave the Ministry of Interior 60 days to set up a base and begin work in Ethiopia. Yet according to MK Avraham Neguise (Likud), chairman of the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, only three days before his four-member delegation landed in Ethiopia earlier this month did the Ministry of Interior finally send over some staff – and only to Gondar, not to Addis Ababa.
“The reason nobody gets approved for immigration is that the Ministry of Interior has been raising unnecessary difficulties,” Neguise charged. As an example, he noted, that in cases where parents in Ethiopia had children living in Israel and children in Ethiopia, they were being told they could immigrate to Israel but would have to leave their children in Ethiopia behind.
According to Neguise, 73 members of the Falashmura community immigrated to Israel in October and another 20 in November. “Since then, there has been a complete and total halt in immigration,” he said. “We were simply shocked when we arrived in Ethiopia and saw what was going on.”
Neguise said that the immigrants who arrived in October and November had already been approved by the Ministry of Interior years before.
Asked to respond, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Interior said that the Population Registry, which is responsible for determining immigration eligibility, began preparing itself for this assignment, including recruiting new staff, “immediately after the government decision was taken.”
“For reasons that have nothing to do with us,” she added, “there have been delays in the vetting process in Addis Ababa.” The spokeswoman noted that the Ministry of Interior is only responsible for determining eligibility, and not other issues such as arranging flights, so that any delays in the government timetable are not solely its responsibility.
About 9,000 members of the Falashmura community remain in Ethiopia – 6,000 in Gondar and 3,000 in Addis Ababa. According to Neguise, who himself is Ethiopian, about 80 percent of them have immediate family in Israel.
As a matter of practice, the government of Israel requires the Falashmura to undergo symbolic conversions to Judaism once they arrive in the country. All told, the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel today numbers 141,000.
In November 2015, the government approved a plan to bring all 9,000 remaining Falashmura to Israel over the next five years. This was a few years after it had declared an official end to organized immigration from Ethiopia, only to discover that many of the newcomers to Israel had left behind parents, spouses, siblings and children.
When the official end to organized immigration was declared, the Jewish Agency and other Jewish welfare organizations instituted dramatic cuts in assistance to the remaining Falashmura community. “Effectively, all the faucets of humanitarian aid have been shut,” said Alalouf. “Nobody helps them, and they lack very basic necessities, forcing many, including children to go out and work in back-breaking jobs.”
His delegation had been told by Ministry of Interior officials, Alalouf said, that they could not begin n work on vetting the candidates for immigration because they did not have a proper office. “Why do they even need an office for something like that?” he wondered. “And if they wanted to, they could also use the Jewish Agency offices which have been vacated. That’s certainly not an excuse.”
The plan to bring over all the remaining 9,000 Falashmura had been delayed by the Ministry of Finance because it had not been incorporated into the state budget. After several Knesset members, including Neguise, staged protests, the government agreed to allocate special funding (close to $60 million) for this latest wave of immigration from Ethiopia.
To kickstart the plan, it also voted that 1,300 of the 9,000 Falashmura would be brought to Israel during the first year.
The Jewish Agency is responsible for bringing immigrants to Israel once they are deemed eligible by the Ministry of Interior. Asked to comment on the ongoing delays in bringing the Falashmura to Israel, a spokesman said: “The Jewish Agency will continue to act in accordance with the government’s decision on the matter and to do whatever is necessary to bring the remaining members of the community to Israel in the swiftest and most efficient manner possible.”