Prominent leaders of the North American Jewish community sent a public letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday urging Israel not to imprison or deport tens of thousands of Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers.
Rather, the leaders – who sent an initial letter regarding the controversial issue to Netanyahu in November – urged him to allow North American Jews help address the matter involving some 38,000 refugees.
Signatories include Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees; Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights; Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street; and Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women.
“The government of Israel recently announced its plans to imprison or potentially deport tens of thousands of Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers unless they leave voluntarily before April,” the letter states.
“The ultimatum follows a mounting campaign of escalation on the part of the Israeli government to pressure the roughly 38,000 African asylum seekers remaining in Israel to self-deport. While Israeli authorities contend that the population in question – most of whom entered Israel between 2007 and 2012 – are economic migrants, HIAS and other rights groups argue that they are asylum seekers and refugees deserving of protection.”
The letter continues: “Israel’s Ministry of Interior acknowledges that thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel have submitted written asylum requests and are awaiting a response, while thousands more have been prevented from doing so.... Media reports indicate that Rwanda and Uganda would be the African countries which asylum seekers currently in Israel would have the choice of traveling to, but the countries deny that such an agreement with Israel has been made.”
A “line has been crossed,” said HIAS’s Hetfield.
“Forcing asylum seekers to choose between imprisonment and self-deportation violates the international protections Israel helped create after the Holocaust to ensure that individuals fleeing war and genocide have the opportunity to find safety,” he said. “In the United States, Israel and around the world, HIAS and our supporters remain committed to addressing the global refugee crisis in a compassionate, humane and legal way.”
Outside of Israel, an average of 84% of Eritrean asylum seekers are granted legal status, and Sudanese nationals 56% of the time, the consortium of leaders noted, adding that in Israel, fewer than 1% of asylum claims have been accepted. Moreover, numerous reports have documented the dangerous conditions asylum seekers face upon leaving Israel, including threats of trafficking, persecution and exploitation.
“Outsourcing our humanitarian obligations to asylum seekers is not a sustainable or moral strategy,” HIAS Israel director Sivan Carmel said.
“Israel has both a responsibility and a capacity to do the right thing and not put refugees’ lives in jeopardy,” Carmel said. “They came to us to seek protection and we cannot turn our backs on them. We cannot turn our backs on our own heritage.”