Israel’s asylum seeker farce
For 38,000 asylum seekers living Israel, 2018 must seem like a roller coaster ride through hell.
In January, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a plan to deport the 38,000 mostly Eritrean and Sudanese migrants to undisclosed third countries in Sub-Saharan Africa – should they refuse to leave voluntarily by March 31.
This prompted an outcry from an array of refugee assistance groups and American Jewish groups and figures — including many who typically refrain from publicly disagreeing with Israeli government policies.
And following a legal challenge mid-March the Israeli Supreme Court issued an injunction preventing forced deportation, pending the state’s response.
Then, Netanyahu appeared to reverse the policy, announcing a plan to send about half of the migrants abroad through a more regularized process governed by the United Nations.
For those remaining in Israel, temporary residence, for five years, coupled with vocational training and a new right to work was to be substituted for their “infiltrator” status.
A new agency, tasked with the “rehabilitation” of southern Tel Aviv, where the largest number of asylum seekers currently live, was to be set up, and asylum seekers were to be dispersed throughout the state.
Netanyahu hinted that the forced deportation plan fell through because the ‘third country’ to which asylum seekers were to be deported – which he now openly admitted was Rwanda – had backed out.
The new policy to send half of the migrants to other countries through the UN earned widespread plaudits, including from American Jewish groups.
But under pressure from his right-wing government partners, Netanyahu reversed it himself again within hours and said he would revive his old plan.
For six hours migrants in Israel believed they had been spared deportation and possible destitution in poor African countries.
According to Israel watcher and Associate Professor in International Refugee Law, University of Reading Ruvi Ziegler the agreement Israel made with UNHCR was a rare win-win situation.
“It was a much belated acknowledgement of Israel’s protection obligations, and gave proper legal status and rights to Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers, in Israel or elsewhere,” Prof Ziegler said.
“It would also have alleviated the hardship of south Tel Aviv’s Israeli residents in an area where the largest number of asylum seekers currently live. Highly unusually, the UNHCR was to assist in resettlement from a “global north” country currently hosting asylum seekers to the tune of less than 0.4 per cent of its population,” he said.
But Netanyahu was widely attacked on social media and his coalition partners along with some of members of his own party demanded the deal be called off.
It was, and the fate of the 38,000 migrants in Israel still hangs in the balance.
What is clear though, is the Netanyahu’s leadership and legacy has been damaged.
He failed to see that his deportation plans would spark unprecedented protest from Israeli civil society and Jewish communities globally.
AMES Australia Senior Journalist