Indefinite imprisonment or a one-way ticket. These were the options Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered to African refugees and migrants in Israel earlier in January.
Describing the 40 000-strong community as “infiltrators”, Netanyahu said they had “to cooperate with us and leave voluntarily, respectably, humanely and legally, or we will have to use other tools at our disposal, which are also according to the law”.
The bid to remove African refugees — mostly Sudanese and Eritreans — is not new.
Those who have made their way across the Israeli border irregularly have for years faced discrimination, exclusion and imprisonment.
But the decision to offer imprisonment or relocation to a third country, presumably Rwanda or Uganda – though both countries deny having an agreement with Israel – has outraged human rights groups and the United Nations.
“In the latest chapter of its long-standing quest to dodge its refugee protection duties, Israel is threatening to lock up thousands of asylum seekers who refuse to leave,” said Gerry Simpson, associate refugee director at Human Rights Watch, on Monday. “Instead of jailing them, Israel should fairly identify and protect refugees among them.”
Despite being party to the 1951 UNHCR Refugee Convention, acquiring refugee status in Israel is close to impossible. Only 200 people have been given refugee status since 1948; the African Refugee Development Centre says Israel recognises fewer than one percent of refugee claims.
Thousands have languished in jails as Israeli policy looked to preserve the Jewish nature of the state.
In 2016, 30-year-old Mutasim Ali became the first Sudanese to be granted refugee status in Israel.
Born in Darfur, Ali fled Khartoum then travelled to Egypt and later to Israel, where he faced racism and alienation.
The African community, he says, is horrified with the relocation plan.
He told Al Jazeera his story.
“It is horrifying. It is a shame that the Israeli government is doing this. When you have politicians who all rally and label us as infiltrators, that’s really dehumanising. Attacks are happening all the time. There’s no justification for it.
“I am not in a position to talk about the treatment of Palestinians, that would be unwise for me to do so. But now is the time for Israelis to decide how they want their society to look like.
“The plan is to deport African asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda, but I believe many people will rather go to Saharonim (a prison near the Egyptian border) because they have nowhere to go. The community is so desperate and lost faith and spirits are down.”
“Refugee status gives me temporary residency and the same rights as an Israeli citizen, except I can’t vote for the national parliament. I don’t want to do that anyway.
“In Israel, there is racism and mistreatment and humiliation.
“I understand when people decide to leave Israel to go nowhere because they are tired of what’s happening. I was the first Sudanese to receive refugee status. The Ministry of Interior says there there is one more, but we don’t know who it is.”
“My village Dabba-naira in Northern Darfur was attacked in 2003 and then destroyed in 2005. I was there during the first attack, aged just 16. The Janjaweed militia came on horses and camels. People were murdered.
“My family and I ended up displaced; we were separated and they ended up in an IDP camp in North Darfur. I searched for an alternative and walked on my own to the south, through different cities. I took a train to Khartoum. The journey took 15 days. There was no way to communicate with my parents, there were no phone calls at that time.
“I was in Khartoum from 2003 to the beginning of 2009. I went to the Omdurman Islamic University and engaged with political activism on campus. A few of us there started to rally and were labelled as rebel groups supporting the revolutionary movements in Khartoum.
“For that reason, we were threatened and followed by the security services. I was also imprisoned several times. As it became more dangerous, I decided it was time to leave. And I went to Egypt. The problem with Egypt is that they have diplomatic relations with Sudan, so this was not the safest place to be.”
“I wasn’t persecuted in Egypt, but I felt continuously under threat. Sudanese security would let it be known that they were watching us. There was a lot of racism as well in Egypt. There is racism in Egypt and Jordan. No one is there for you.
“Egypt is not a place to host or protect genocide survivors, because it itself committed these crimes.
“I didn’t want to go anywhere that had diplomatic relations with Sudan such as Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. I decided on Israel for two reasons.
“The first reason – there were no diplomatic relations between the two countries.
“Second, when the genocide began in Darfur in 2003 and there was bloodshed every day, [Sudan] was supported by China and the Arab League Countries – despite them being mostly Muslim and sharing a language.
“In the eyes of those countries we are not even Muslim, so they were supporting the government in those actions by giving money or indirectly through the Arab League.”
“The only people standing with us at that time were the Jewish diaspora from America. They launched campaigns such as Save Darfur.
“I was surprised because in school we had been taught a lot against Israel. But they were supporting us because they had experienced this in their part.
“That motivated my decision that Israel was the safest space for me.
“It was not the state of Israel that supported us, but the American Jews. Israel is a Jewish state, and so that gave me the impression that if Jews were standing up for us, Israel might be a safer place.
“I crossed the Israeli border in 2009 and the Israeli army took us in. They gave us food and water. The day after, I was taken by border police to prison.”
“I saw hundreds of African prisoners from Eritrea and Guinea, Togo and Cameroon. In the compound I was in there were about 500. [Note: There are currently 1 200 Africans at the Holot prison]
“As a person who had been through solitary confinement and who had fled genocide in Darfur, I was not angry about the conditions of the prison. I was upset that the prison services were not giving me an opportunity to apply for asylum.
“The vast majority [of inmates] were from West African countries. The idea was to make it to Israel as a final destination, no one was using it as a springboard. When you’re escaping danger, you don’t worry about where to go, you take the closest possible option.”
“After three years of going to the Ministry of Interior, they finally allowed me to apply for asylum. Nothing happened for two years. Instead they sent me to Holot Detention Facility. It was at Holot that I started legal proceedings and was supported by the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants rights group.
“Israel has made it difficult for asylum-seekers. Because Israel knows that refugees from Sudan or Eritrea cannot be sent back home (under the Refugee convention), they have made life hard for refugees in the hope that they would leave on their own. They do not directly deport people. They try to assist organising a third country, like Uganda or Rwanda; they give money and let you go.” — AlJazeera
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