The newcomers have been less than welcome, often facing racial discrimination and police violence. The Israeli government has now given them an ultimatum: leave voluntarily by April 2018 or go to prison. Refugees will reportedly receive $3,500 and an airline ticket to their country of origin or a third country, which several media sources have named as Rwanda, under a proposed deal where Israel would pay Rwanda $5,000 for each asylum seeker it took in.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the policy, saying that he has the right to protect the country’s borders from what he referred to as “infiltrators” – the derogatory term for black refugees. Meanwhile, Yakkov Katz, who heads the committee to find a solution for refugees, called them a “demographic threat”. Nehemia Strasler, an economic commentator, claimed that African refugees take jobs away from lower income Israeli workers, and that the state will never close the economic gap if it continues to absorb the “destitute”. At the same time, residents of neighbourhoods with large immigrant populations, mostly in the south of the capital Tel Aviv, allege that they have led to overcrowding and a spike in crime rates.
Michal Rozin, an MP for the Merertz party, said she had put forward several solutions to try and disperse the refugee populace. “Unfortunately, not only did the government ignore my suggestions, they also cancelled the Knesset [parliament] committee on the matter and took the item completely off the agenda,” she said.
Although Israel ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1964 Protocols, which oblige it to review every refugee case, it has recognized less than 1 per cent of asylum seekers as refugees. Globally, that percentage is between 56-84 per cent. In addition, it upholds the principle of non-refoulement, acknowledging that some asylum seekers are in danger if they returned to their home country. This affords them so-called ‘group protection’, but in practice this is little more than a temporary stay on deportation, and they are required to renew their visas every three months.
The government has also introduced several measures designed to encourage ‘voluntary departure’. These include limiting access to health care and forcing asylum seekers to set aside a fifth of their salary, which is paid out when they leave the country.
Most recently, the Knesset approved a bill to close the Holot detention centre. More than 10,000 illegal immigrants and asylum seekers have been held in the centre in the Negev Desert since it opened in 2013. Its closure would force asylum seekers who refused to leave of their own accord to choose between indefinite detention in an Israeli prison or deportation to a third country.
According to human rights organizations, including the African Refugee Development Center, deportation to a third country is not a tenable solution. In some cases, they say, the returnees have their travel documents stolen, experience arbitrary arrest, demands for bribes and even torture. These organizations are now filing an appeal against the government’s decision to imprison refugees.
Some Jewish American organizations have also voiced their concern. Truah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, called it ‘immoral’ and said that a country founded by refugees should not abandon asylum seekers. “The Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers have fled to Israel to escape violence, slavery and other brutal conditions in their native lands. As Jews, we know what happens when countries close their doors to those running for their lives,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Truah’s executive director, noting that sending asylum seekers to a likely death violates Jewish law and international law.
However, the policy is aligned with the current trends in the Trump administration against immigrants and Islamophobia in Europe.