‘In late 1938, 125,000 applicants lined up outside US consulates hoping to obtain 27,000 visas under the existing immigration quota. By June 1939, the number of applicants had increased to over 300,000. Most visa applicants were unsuccessful.” The quote is from the United States Holocaust Museum’s Refugees Key Facts.
Among the atrocities of WWII, a glaring one was the refusal of Western countries to grant asylum to refugees from the Nazi killing machine throughout the war or to allow them to apply for such asylum. Once the scope of devastation was fully understood, this refusal was such an embarrassment it compelled the world’s nations to assure the people of the world that it would never happen again. Thus, the 1951 Refugees Convention was born. Naturally, the young State of Israel was a driving force in the creation of this treaty and wanted to be one of its first signatories. Never again would there be masses of people fleeing genocide who were barred entry to a safe country. And never again should there be.
In June 2016, the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, reported the number of people displaced had for the first time exceeded that of WWII. This had to do with civilians fleeing for their lives from any number of countries, but especially from the ongoing crisis in Syria. Refugees are arriving in Western countries in record numbers, despite the brunt of that burden falling on Syria’s neighbors. UNHCR’s 2016 Global Trends report indicated more than one million people of concern in Lebanon; 720,000 in Jordan; over three million in Turkey; and the numbers have gone up significantly since then. The same report indicated 815,000 refugees in the US; 165,000 in the UK; 1.2 million in Germany; and 247,000 in Italy.
ISRAEL HAS remained largely insulated from the global influx. While it has not admitted any Syrian refugees, it has provided occasional and very-welcome emergency medical aid. The few refugees who did arrive in Israel – 44,000 according to the report, or up to 60,000 at the peak – came from Sudan and Eritrea.
The Sudanese are fleeing ongoing carnage at the hands of the government in Darfur and political persecution throughout the country. Eritreans are fleeing one of the world’s worst dictatorships, where compulsory “military service” keeps people of all ages, from teenagers through retired elders, in forced labor. Such slavery, by any name, includes an array of severe human rights violations. Refusing conscription can result in summary execution, while any criticism of the Eritrean government can lead to disappearance, imprisonment in subhuman conditions, or one of many types of well-documented torture.
The refugee treaty, the same one Israel championed in 1951, requires that people be granted the opportunity to request asylum. Between 80% and 90% of such requests by Sudanese and Eritreans have been approved throughout Europe. It is understood that returning people to these countries will likely result in their persecution or death. Yet Israel does not grant asylum to these same refugees, nor does it really allow people to even submit requests. The lines outside the “Salame” office of the Immigration Authority in Tel Aviv – the only location where asylum requests may be submitted – bears an eerie resemblance to those images outside the US consulates from 1938.
How dare I compare? Those people were facing certain death at the hand of the Nazis, Israel is not conducting a massacre! Well, except it sort of is. Read on.
REALIZING THAT deporting refugees to Sudan and Eritrea would be too overt, the Israeli government came up with another bright idea. It’s called “voluntary departure,” which is anything but voluntary. The government signed dubious arrangements with Uganda and Rwanda agreeing to receive its refugees. But then it offers the refugees two options: Leave now, or face indefinite incarceration. Those who have “voluntarily” departed share a gruesome reality: Of the 4,000 refugees who have departed Israel for Rwanda thus far, only seven have remained there. The rest were forced to continue their search for safe haven. Some have been returned to their countries of origin never to be heard from again. Others faced torture and abduction, while some were kidnapped and executed by ISIS. All face a life-threatening situation. This is the fate that awaits the 37,000 refugees who currently remain in Israel.
By behaving this way, the government has put our own history as the Jewish people to shame. Since Israel built a big fence on its Egyptian border, there are no more refugees coming through, just these 37,000. These people present no threat – demographic or otherwise. The refugees are not even taking Israeli jobs. The current thinking is that once the refugees are gone, more foreign workers will be brought in to fill their places.
Israel has a long way to go to reclaim its vaunted reputation on human rights. It has complex issues to solve regarding charges of occupation, discrimination against its Palestinian citizens and so on. Relative to these problems, the refugee issue is easy to solve: Simply allow people to request asylum, accept those who are legitimate and afford them the rights laid out in the refugee treaty – to jobs, to health, to education – until such time as their countries are safe enough for them to return.
But instead of doing the right thing and also gaining some positive hasbara (public diplomacy) for a change, Israel is creating an abomination, and over the next few weeks it plans to create a much-larger one. Sending refugees to their likely deaths is the most undemocratic thing “the only democracy in the Middle East” can do and the most un-Jewish thing “the Jewish state” can do.
Now is the time to raise your voice: Write to your congressman, the nearest Israeli embassy or consulate; organize your federation, synagogue, church or mosque. This is one atrocity we can actually stop right now if we all really try.
The writer is the director of Amnesty International Israel and formerly worked for the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, Greenpeace and the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel. The views expressed in this column are those of the writer. He can be reached at director@ amnesty.org.il