Tamara Newman is the director of international relations for The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, a Tel Aviv-based organization that advocates for the rights of migrants and refugees in Israel, and provides them with legal and paralegal services. She spoke to The CJN from Israel.
You were scheduled to come to Toronto to talk about this issue, but the situation there changed recently. Can you give us an update about that?
The government announced an extremely aggressive deportation plan. In Israel today, there are 38,000 asylum seekers, with the vast majority from Eritrea and Sudan. It’s well known that you cannot deport people back to those countries because of the danger it would cause for them.
More recently, Israel decided to send these people to what is called “third countries” – neither Israel, nor their country of origin. It’s well known that they are being sent to Rwanda.
These are people who have been living in Israel for five to 10 years, people whose asylum applications, had they been checked according to world standards, would be given refugee status in almost any other Western country. Israel will be paying Rwanda to take these people.
What has been the situation facing asylum seekers since their arrival in Israel? Are they living at the margins of Israeli society, or living underground?
It’s quite complicated. People who crossed the border spent a period in detention. When the centres filled up, they were released with a conditional release visa. They were told that, if they were Eritrean or Sudanese, they wouldn’t be forcibly deported to their country of origin. It’s not like they were physically hiding, but that visa had to be renewed every one or two months. So if people didn’t renew, they risked detention.
In 2014, the government built the Holot Detention Centre. There were a lot of people who didn’t want to go, so they stopped renewing their visas and they were living semi-hidden lives.
There was a policy of non-enforcement and the government decided that employers wouldn’t be harmed for employing asylum seekers. So although they didn’t have the legal right to work, they were allowed to work.
There is no government support for them whatsoever – not housing, not food, not accommodations, nothing. Everyone was working to support themselves, with the majority of them paying taxes, as well.
Some people say it’s something that costs the country. It’s not.
The prime minister calls them infiltrators and that suggests that they’re there for some nefarious purpose. Can you comment on that and have there been any examples of terrorism among the asylum seekers?
The term “infiltrators” is the official legal term for them in Israel. Holot was established under the anti-infiltration law. The third, fourth and fifth iteration of the law came out to address the asylum seekers, but the original law came out in the 1950s to stop Palestinian terrorists coming into the country, just after the State of Israel was born.
“Infiltrator” is a term for anyone who is not a resident of the State of Israel and who enters. That person can be detained until they are deported. So the government re-enacted the law in 2012, which made “infiltrators” the legal term for these people.
There is a big difference between someone from Sudan and Eritrea who is fleeing because of persecution and seeking asylum, and someone who enters as an infiltrator and who can be detained and deported.
What is the motivation behind the government’s decision to remove asylum seekers and send them back to Africa?
I think they’re populist, racist, xenophobic acts. It’s politicians using people’s lives for their own political benefit.
The government has sold a lie to the Israeli public that they are not refugees. They are under the impression that the Israeli public wants this and they are doing it because they believe it will be popular with their voters.
It’s not a good policy from an economic perspective. It’s not a policy that’s respectful of human rights. It’s not a morally good policy. It is not a policy that can gain any respect in any international arena, but the reason is that it’s popular.
The policy is to give asylum seekers money (US$3,500) and send them back to Africa, but not to their original home countries. What is wrong with that?
There are a few things wrong with that. Let’s start with the technicalities. The government has promised that once they get there, they’ll have legal status, they will have the right to work and the right to apply for asylum. All of our research shows that none of this is true and that the government is lying about it. We’ve been monitoring the situation in the two countries that Israel has sent people to, Rwanda and Uganda, for three years. We consistently see that people arrive in these countries, they’re taken through a side exit out of the airport and don’t go through immigration. Their papers are taken away from them and they are forced to live in fear.
You can’t be in Rwanda without papers. People are stopped at checkpoints and they are asked to present their visas and their IDs. It’s very unsafe for them to be there. They are often detained or deported back to their country of origin, or they join the migratory route going from Rwanda to Uganda, to South Sudan, Sudan, Libya and across the Mediterranean. It’s extremely dangerous. People lose their lives in the Mediterranean. People lose their lives in the slave trade. They’ve lost their lives to ISIS.
The slave trade? They’re made into slaves?
Some African migrants who have attempted to cross the Mediterranean have been sold into slavery in Libya. It’s something that kind of hit the media in the last couple of months, after CNN reported on a slave auction in Libya.
We have Hebrew-speaking Eritreans now in Europe who took that route and who lost friends along the way.
What do you think Israel should be doing with regards to the asylum seekers?
They have lived in Israel for five to 10 years. They speak Hebrew. They know the laws of kashrut and Shabbat. They send their children to Israeli schools. They know to dress up on Purim.
I live in Tel Aviv. The city would not function without these people, who are doing the jobs Israelis don’t want to do. They are cleaning the streets. They’re washing the dishes in every single restaurant and cafe in Tel Aviv. They’re cleaning the hotels.
It is atrocious to send these people away, knowing that their right to seek asylum is protected by international conventions that were written specifically because of the Jewish experience in the Holocaust.
What is your solution?
Israel should operate a proper refugee determination system. By UN standards, that means it would give these people the opportunity to claim asylum and explain why they are refugees according to the refugee convention. That would need to come with some kind of legal status that could allow them to live some kind of dignified and normal existence.
The second thing would be to end the use of immigration detention facilities. The government spent over a quarter of a billion dollars on the Holot Detention Center. The money that was spent could have gone to so many better uses.
The third thing would be to encourage them to disperse around the country. A lot of the social tension around the refugee issue comes from the fact that many of them are concentrated in south Tel Aviv. The government sent asylum seekers to one poor neighbourhood. When migration is managed properly, it can be very positive. If there were a proper policy in place to disperse the population around the country, it would be positive for everyone.
What would you like the Canadian Jewish community to do?
We desperately need friends and allies of Israel to tell the Israeli government that this would be a terrible mistake and a wrong move for Israel and the Jewish people. It would be a betrayal of Jewish history and Jewish values and it is completely within Israeli’s capacity as a wealthy democratic nation to accept a small share of the huge refugee population in the world. The 38,000 asylum seekers in Israel is a very small number and to see them sent to dangerous situations where their lives are at risk would be just horrific.
We need people who are connected and have the capacity to speak out and do whatever it takes, even if that means holding back money they would send to Israel. We are in desperate times.
And we need people to support organizations in Israel that are working and trying to save the lives of these people, who have turned to us for help. Work to make sure that Israel does the right thing, so this doesn’t go down as a terrible stain on Israeli history.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.