“I’ve been in Israel for over 10 years, I went to school here, I speak and think in Hebrew. I barely remember the Congo, and now in four months from now they tell me that I have to go back there? I have a family that’s still living there, and they talk about rape and murders on a daily basis. If we return there we have no future, I can’t believe the decision,” says D., a citizen of the Democratic Republic of Congo in his twenties.
He’s afraid of harassment by the government (in Congo or in Israel) if he reveals his identity. “If the situation in Congo were safe I would like to return to my homeland, but I’m afraid. Why do a few hundred people bother Israel so much? How can the government say that it’s safe for us to return there?”
D.’s question is hard to answer. Haaretz has learned that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees opposes the decision, saying that they were not consulted. The UNHCR says that no other countries have removed their protection from citizens of the violent country, and they believe that the situation will worsen due to upcoming elections. Scholars and experts called the decision “surprising” and feared that it’s a political decision that may endanger the lives of the returnees.
The Israeli foreign and interior ministries say that the reasons for the change in policy are secret and refused to explain it.
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The dry figures speak for themselves. There are about 750,000 asylum seekers and refugees from Congo and over 4 million displaced persons forced to flee from their homes there. Most are staying in neighboring countries such as Angola, Burundi, Kenya, Uganda and South Africa, with many others in European countries such as Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, England and France. In Israel there are between 400 and 600 people from Congo, most of whom entered legally via Ben-Gurion Airport, and submitted requests for asylum.
For 15 years, since 2003, Israel has provided them temporary protection, but this week Interior Minister Arye Dery, in consultation with the Foreign Ministry, decided that there’s nothing to prevent deporting them back to their homeland.
Sharon Harel, a senior representative of the UNHCR in Israel, said: “We believe that the present situation in the DRC proves that the time is not ripe to remove protection from its citizens. The security situation has been deteriorating since early 2018, with interethnic and political tensions leading to a 16 percent increase in the number of displaced persons and a renewal of the emergency situation.
“The flight of the population also increased due to the renewed outbreak of the Ebola virus in August, which remains unchecked due to the security situation,” Harel continued. “Alternative living arrangements within the country are unfeasible. If we add the presidential elections, which are scheduled for December and are usually accompanied by political and economic instability, violence and fights over resources, we get a gloomy picture of a vulnerable country that cannot protect its citizens. There have been no non-violent changes in the government since its independence in 1960.
The UNHCR explained that cancelling protection for foreign nationals requires a substantial change in circumstances in their home country, which hasn’t happened in this case. “We are unaware of any country that rescinded the protection given to citizens of the DRC,” said Harel.
“Had the decision makers consulted the UNHCR about the decision to end protection, we would have expressed our opinion and our concern,” Harel added. “We will continue to discuss the issue with our colleagues in the Interior Ministry with a request for clarification, and further explanation of our instructions regarding the situation in the country and the way other countries are treating the possibility of return.”
Dr. Irit Back, head of the African Studies program at Tel Aviv University, also believes that the situation in the country may become more rather than less dangerous. “I assume that the decision is not based on academic research, but is more populist and political. The situation there is very unstable, with one of the worst wars in the world. There’s no indication of an improvement: not in politics, not in the economy, not in people’s safety. Before the elections the situation will probably worsen. This is a less significant group in terms of numbers, so maybe it’s a kind of ‘pilot’ project for deportation before deporting other groups. Israel’s motives are not clear and are liable to endanger this population.”
Dr. Yaron Salman, a lecturer at Ben Gurion University and an expert on internal conflicts and civil wars, also provides a pessimistic picture of the DRC’s future. “I don’t see the crisis in Congo ending in the foreseeable future. It’s a huge country, with abundant natural resources but very poor. There has been political instability there for decades, one reason being the refusal of the president, who has been serving since 2001, to vacate his seat.
“The official security services inflict serious violence on anyone considered an opposition, and the president manages to postpone the election repeatedly,” Salmon said. “There are millions of displaced persons every year who flee their homes for fear of the government forces. In light of that I predict that either the election will be postponed again or the president will find a way to stay in power. These processes will undoubtedly lead to further violence, and the Israeli decision didn’t necessarily take into account the political instability in the country. The motives for the decision are unclear to me, to put it mildly. I find it a surprising decision. Anyone returning there can expect a very unclear and gloomy future.”
D. and his family, like many citizens of Congo, requested asylum when they entered Israel years ago, and have yet to receive a reply. “For years they’ve renewed our temporary status while examining our requests. We thought it means that in the end we’ll receive refugee status here, not that in the end they would deport us without preparation,” he said.
D.’s request for asylum is one of 208 from Congo nationals in Israel (sometimes a request is made on behalf of two people) that have been sitting with the population authority for years without any decision on them being made. But the Interior Ministry will have to decide on these requests by January, since a person whose request for asylum has not been answered cannot be deported.
Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, which has assisted the Congolese here for years, said: “The vast majority of the small Congolese community has found a tolerable refuge in Israel in the past two decades. Although they haven’t received refugee status, they haven’t suffered from harassment and government decrees like the refugees of the slaughter in Darfur and the oppressive dictatorship in Eritrea. We won’t allow the government to deport, within three months, asylum seekers who have been unable to receive a reply to their requests for asylum for over a decade. That’s while the despot [Joseph] Kabila, from whom they fled, still rules in Congo, and it’s not clear whether he’ll agree to vacate his seat after the election if defeated.”
The Hotline is demanding that the population authority examine all pending requests for asylum by Congolese nationals, saying the indecision is a failure of responsibility on the part of the authority, which is demanding that they return to a dangerous country.
A., a woman of 28 who has been living here since 2001 with her family, says the Congolese community in Israel has been frightened since getting the news. “People are crying, don’t know what to do, what will happen to them. We hope the government will change its decision,” she said. A., her siblings and her parents are one of seven cases in which Congolese nationals received refugee status from the interior ministry, so that they cannot be deported in January. She studied in schools and college in Israel and now works for a large Israeli company. But even among those few who received refugee status and settled in Israel, there is great fear. Says A.:
“My little brothers speak only Hebrew. I’ve lived in Israel longer than in Congo. We escaped because my father had anti-government views and saw his friends being murdered one after another. He knew that we were next if we didn’t run away. You can’t speak against the government there without endangering your life. Women walking in the street are raped every day, there are murderers and robbers. My grandmother and cousins are still there and they tell me how terrible the situation is. Although we have refugee status, we have to get it renewed it every year. I’m afraid that next year they won’t renew it.”