The triviality of forgetfulness can bring even the most cynical person to tears. In a fit of populism, Interior Minister Eli Yishai claimed yesterday that asylum seekers in Israel are criminals and that they all should be imprisoned and deported.
This was the same Yishai that pleaded to the public just six months ago not to generalize nor criminalize a whole community over the actions of few. But that was about another marginalized group, the ultra-Orthodox community in Beit Shemesh, after several extremists spat on a young girl in the street. Perhaps he hoped that we would forget these words, or worse, that we would not see the two communities in the same light.
Yishai continuously depicts all African foreigners in Israel as infiltrators seeking work. However, if we actually examine Yishai's claims we see that his anti-foreigner rhetoric is not only hate-mongering, it is also factually misleading.
Despite repeated public declarations that all non-Jewish Africans in Israel are migrant workers, the Ministry of Interior has only checked 15 percent of their asylum requests. While Yishai claims that refugee status is granted to those deserving of asylum, in reality less than one percent of all applicants, less than 200 people in total, have been granted refugee status since the founding of the State of Israel.
This pretense is made even clearer when Yishai daydreams about the day 'they' will all be gone. But why has the Ministry of Interior not deported all of these "African migrant workers and infiltrators," as it has done so vigorously with other undocumented migrant workers?
The simple answer is that the Israeli authorities have recognized that many would face substantial risk to their life and freedom if deported. Yet it does so through what it calls “group protection,” in which the government neither assesses their asylum application, nor deports them. And deepening their state of legal limbo, the Israeli government continually incites against the presence of these Africans, as if it were their fault that - in most cases - they were forced to flee for their lives.
The recent media reports about high crime rates among Africans in Israel have fostered an understandable anxiety among the Israeli public. However, the spike in crime is spurious and unfounded, and repeated reference to this 'fact' is tantamount to ongoing incitement by public officials.
In its latest report on the subject, the Knesset Research Center has shown that crime rates among foreigners (including Africans) are significantly lower than those within the Israeli population. While no one should deny that criminals exist among the asylum seekers' communities, and they should be held accountable, as in every society, it is important to remember that the vast majority are not criminals, are not dangerous, and should not be punished or imprisoned. Refugees and ultra-Orthodox alike.
Article 31 of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention - which the young State of Israel was instrumental in writing - explicitly states that “States shall not impose penalties [on refugees], on account of their illegal entry or presence...” The use of the term “infiltrators,” which Yishai and all other government officials regularly use, is therefore inappropriate, as it carries threatening connotations and fuels xenophobia and discrimination against asylum-seekers and other migrants.
Legally, Israel must uphold the international obligations that it took upon itself. Morally, Israel should allow all those who arrive in Israel the ability to seek asylum, in the way Israel intended for nations to do when our country led the crafting of the Refugee Convention. It did so, less than a decade after World-War II, so that people facing persecution would never again be denied protection.
Oded Diner is the Director of Campaigns and Activism at Amnesty International Israel.