Editorial

Israel's African Asylum Seekers Can't Go 'Home' to Rwanda

Kigali’s refusal to take in forcibly deported refugees underlines the folly of Israel’s plan

African migrants demonstrate against Israel's policy to forcibly deport African refugees and asylum seekers, outside the Rwanda embassy on January 22, 2018 in the Israeli city of Herzliya.
JACK GUEZ/AFP

“Returning home” is how Interior Minister Arye Dery describes the operation to deport asylum seekers, even though those targeted for deportation are citizens of Eritrea and Sudan and the plan is to force them to go to Rwanda. As far as Dery is concerned, some other African state is their home, even if they’ve never been there, don’t speak the language, aren’t familiar with the culture and don’t know a soul there. “They’re going back to their natural place,” he told Army Radio Tuesday, adding, “If only every country treated them the way we did.”

Contrary to what Dery says, Israel cannot take pride in its treatment of asylum seekers. The state has done everything possible to make it difficult for them, to wear them down and cause them to leave. The pressure didn’t stop even after the completion of the border fence with Egypt, which blocked the entry of additional asylum seekers. Over 20,000 left over the past few years. Many of those who in Israel were called “infiltrators” were recognized as refugees in other Western states and granted rights that Israel has refused to give them.

But Israel isn’t willing to cope with even the 40,000 asylum seekers who have refused to leave despite the pressure, threats, lack of rights and even imprisonment in the Holot detention facility. The Interior Ministry has for years dragged its feet in examining their asylum applications, and the acceptance rate is among the lowest in the West. Dery said this is not a deportation campaign, but there’s no other description for the cabinet resolution that makes asylum seekers choose between being sent to a foreign African state and indefinite incarceration.

Israel has repeatedly declared that it has reached an arrangement with a third state that will protect the deportees and give them legal status and protection. It refuses to disclose the state or the agreement, even though it is known that the state is Rwanda. Rwanda denied Tuesday having signed such an agreement, and Olivier Nduhungirehe, a deputy foreign minister, tweeted Wednesday that his country’s “Open doors policy only applies to those who come to Rwanda voluntary, without any form of constraint.”

Rwanda’s vehement denials are worrisome and make it even more crucial for Israel to publish the agreement, assuming it exists. Israel cannot ignore the denials and send people to a state that has said it will not accept them. In the face of the government’s unacceptable plans, the initiatives by ordinary citizens are a breath of hope. The wave of letters, petitions and demonstrations against deportation has been joined by pilots and crew members calling on airlines to refuse to fly asylum seekers against their will. Many have also undertaken to protect asylum seekers by taking them into their homes. Perhaps these efforts will lead Dery and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stop this folly at the last minute.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.