UN Refugee Chief Slams Israel Over Migrants Policy: Don't Forget Your Own Painful History

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Asylum seekers at the Holot detention facility in southern Israel, December 2016.
Asylum seekers at the Holot detention facility in southern Israel, December 2016.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The head of the UN’s refugee agency says Israel is choosing to forget its own painful past and should treat its African asylum seekers more compassionately.

“The Israeli government’s decision to expel 40,000 African asylum seekers is of great concern,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi told Haaretz at a conference in Rome over the weekend. “Israel has a painful history of migration and exile," he added. "New generations must not forget that refugees do not flee out of choice, but because they don’t have any other choice.”

He continued: “This situation makes me think of a saying by Italian political thinker Antonio Gramsci: ‘History teaches, but it has no students.’”

The Israeli government approved a plan last month to close its detention center housing African asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea, and launch an expulsion operation in the coming weeks to deport them back to their homeland or another African state.

The asylum seekers will soon receive notices demanding that they either leave Israel or face jail for an unlimited amount of time. Israel is reportedly paying Rwanda $5,000 for every asylum seeker it takes in. Additionally, those agreeing to leave Israel will receive $3,500 and get their airfare paid. The move could cost the government about 1 billion shekels ($287 million).

Grandi included Israel in a list of countries that are inextricably linked with migration – Hungary, Australia and the United States – but that have recently taken restrictive measures against those in dire need of protection and refuge.

The Italian diplomat spoke to Haaretz on the sidelines of “MED 2017 – Beyond Turmoil a Positive Agenda,” a conference organized by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, public broadcaster RAI and the prestigious think tank ISPI. It is aimed at fostering cooperation between countries in the Mediterranean region, particularly on issues that require a coordinated response – like migration.

Grandi says his organization has been talking with the Israeli government about African asylum seekers for many years, noting that the UN has helped some 2,400 refugees be resettled from Israel to third countries (i.e., somewhere other than Israel or their homeland).

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi in Rome, Italy, November 30, 2017. His new book describes his long career at the forefront of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history.Credit: STEFANO RELLANDINI/REUTERS

“The majority of Africans who arrive in Israel have lived through extremely difficult conditions, violence and even forms of modern slavery,” he said, adding that their asylum claims “must be considered very seriously under the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Israel is a party.” He added that providing refuge to those in need of protection is also about “a universal moral duty that applies to all cultures and religions, including Judaism.”

Grandi, who was born in Milan in 1957, has enjoyed a long career providing humanitarian aid, something he describes in his book “Rifugi e ritorni. Storie del mio lungo viaggio tra rifugiati, filantropi e assassini” (“Refuges and Returns: My Long Trip Among Refugees, Philanthropists and Murderers”), published earlier this year in Italian. Before becoming the commissioner on January 1, 2016, Grandi spent nine years at the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, first as deputy commissioner general and then, from 2010, as commissioner-general. His term as refugee commissioner runs until 2020.

He defended his former UN agency for its work with Palestinians. “UNRWA is often accused of either perpetuating the refugee status of Palestinians or of exempting Israel of its responsibilities toward civilians in the occupied territories by providing services on its behalf,” he said. But the disappearance of the underfunded agency “would not solve the issue of Palestinian refugees – rather it would exacerbate it,” he warned.

Grandi said frequent conflicts in the Middle East have obligated the agency, founded in 1949, to focus on its relief and emergency support role. “But its key contribution to the education and health of millions of Palestinians should not be forgotten,” he noted, adding, “Wherever there has been relative stability, as in Syria before the current war, UNRWA launched promising projects aimed at creating employment and providing skills to refugees.”

Grandi endured a baptism of fire at the start of his diplomatic career, working in Thai camps that accommodated refugees who had fled the war between the Vietnamese army and the Khmer Rouge guerrilla movement, after the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia (then known as Kampuchea) in December 1978.

He was conflicted by the moral dilemma of trying to help groups of refugees who had Khmer Rouge fighters, responsible for heinous crimes and mass murders under the communist regime, in their midst.

Similarly, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then known as Zaire) in 1994, he witnessed a tragic cholera epidemic that killed thousands of Hutu refugees who were fleeing Rwanda – where some of them had been implicated at various degrees in the genocide of the country’s Tutsi ethnic group.

The commissioner is currently trying to alleviate the appalling situation for refugees who have made it to Libya and hope to travel on to Europe, some of whom have remained trapped in highly insecure detention centers. The migrants’ plight was highlighted in a recent CNN report about the Libyan slave trade.

Last week, the commissioner managed to evacuate 25 of the most vulnerable migrants to Niger, from where they will be flown to France. Nearly 120 more migrants, many of whom are minors from Eritrea, are set to follow shortly.

Grandi praises Niger, which has become a regional hub that allows resettlement. “Libya cannot be considered a safe country for asylum seekers,” he warned. He believes an agreement similar to the one between the European Union and Turkey, in which migrants have been kept in Turkey in exchange for funds from the EU, cannot be recreated there.

Despite what he calls the “complexities in dealing with large flows of refugees today,” Grandi remains an optimist. “There are ways to deal with these complexities, identify those deserving asylums among migrants, in keeping with international obligations,” he concludes. It is a message he aims at Israel, too.

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