The Shame of Israel's Deportation of Asylum Seekers

Israel, itself a state of refugees, should permit the 37,000 asylum seekers from African countries to live and work in dignity

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African asylum-seekers in Tel Aviv, November 2017.
African asylum-seekers in Tel Aviv, November 2017.Credit: Meged Gozani

To the disgrace of the government, the Knesset and the State of Israel, the operation to expel African asylum seekers has begun. The Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority has called on citizens of Eritrea and Sudan to leave the country within three months. In April the agency will began enforcement measures: Anyone who has not left will be imprisoned indefinitely. And to deter them from working, the agency will fine any Israeli who continues to employ candidates for deportation.

But the current iteration of the expulsion campaign isn’t harsh enough for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan. The latter noted that the indefinite internment of thousands of asylum seekers would cause overcrowding in prisons and cost the state a fortune. As the official in charge of the prisons, Erdan has yet again demonstrated that he is more sensitive to budgets and protocols than to human beings.

Netanyahu, sympathetic to Erdan’s bureaucratic distress, ordered an examination of the possibility of forcible deportation, with immigration officials escorting asylum seekers on flights, perhaps in handcuffs.

“The infiltrators have a simple choice,” explained Netanyahu. “Either cooperate with us and leave voluntarily, respectably, humanely, legally — or we’ll have to use other means at our disposal, which are also lawful.”

The High Court of Justice rejected the prolonged or indefinite imprisonment of asylum seekers without trial, on the grounds that imprisonment for the purpose of expulsion was illegal in the face of a legal impediment to deportation. Since Rwanda — the “third state” to which Eritrean and Sudanese are being expelled — agreed to accept only asylum seekers who left voluntarily, the expulsions could not proceed as planned. In August the High Court ruled that imprisonment could not be used as an instrument of persuasion, that is to compel the “consent” of asylum seekers to deportation.

But Netanyahu and Erdan, who represent the racist, turbid stream in the government, view the court’s restrictions as pointless legal hair-splitting. They employed brutal political virtuosity to get around them: Israel claims it has amended the agreement with Rwanda (which no one has seen) to allow the deportation of asylum seekers to that country even without their consent. With that, it again opened a back door to imprisoning the asylum seekers, without trial and without their having committed any crime.

Instead of keeping the 37,000 asylum-seekers in Israel, allowing them to work and live with dignity, and dispersing them throughout the country so as not to burden long-time residents of south Tel Aviv, Israel — a state of refugees — insists on betraying the dictates of justice and undermining its own moral right to exist.

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