The African refugee problem, both in Israel and elsewhere, is a direct result of the political and economic mess that prevails in certain parts of Africa, which neither African leaders (who are frequently part of the problem) nor the international community seem capable of resolving.
The 1951 Refugee Convention declares that a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
A priori, this definition does not seem to include persons who have sought to leave their country of origin due to economic difficulties, poverty and occasional bouts of famine. However, since many of those who manage to leave for these reasons are unable to do so legally, or to find a country willing to receive them as immigrants, and soon discover that they are in trouble both with the authorities at home and in the countries they have managed to enter illicitly, they frequently find themselves qualifying for refugee status post factum.
It seems as though the Israeli government is not in the least interested in any of this. About a month ago the government adopted a decision to start expelling to Rwanda and Uganda all or most of the 38,000 or so citizens of Eritrea and Sudan who infiltrated into Israel from the Sinai Peninsula before the border was hermetically sealed, under threat that if they refuse to leave “voluntarily” they will be incarcerated. Those who “agree” to leave before April will be granted $3,500 and documentation of some sort, that according to past experience is not worth the paper it is printed on.
Why Rwanda and Uganda, and not Eritrea and Sudan? Because even Israel recognizes that Eritrea and Sudan are not options due to security and humanitarian problems, and because secret agreements were reached (according to the Israeli government) with the two former states, which allegedly agreed to receive the refugees for a price. What exactly these agreements say is not at all clear. Uganda denies that there is an agreement, while Rwanda denies that it has agreed to receive persons expelled against their wishes.
Those who sincerely wish to understand what is going on have difficulties getting to the bottom of the facts in this affair, partially because of the absence of transparency but also because of lies that are shamelessly spread by the authorities and by pro-government media outlets.
One lie concerns the question of how many of the persons earmarked for expulsion or incarceration are illegal employment seekers, who do not qualify as refugees. The authorities claim that only a few have requested to be recognized as refugees. According to NGOs that try to assist the Africans in question, this simply isn’t true, and there are up to 15,000 pending applications, while of the 2,000 or so applications that have been processed by the authorities only a handful – less than half a percent – have been approved (the approval rate in Germany, the UK and the US of requests from Eritrean and Sudanese applicants for refugee status is 60-90%). The authorities haven’t published any figures that disprove the NGO claims.
Another lie is the argument of various Interior Ministry spokesmen in reply to those who express the fear that the agreements with Rwanda and Uganda are little more than a hoax, and that the arrivals from Israel will be forced to seek their future elsewhere, sometimes risking their lives to do so, and that the Israeli authorities are not prepared to monitor what happens to the Eritreans and Sudanese once they have arrived in the two African destination countries.
Last week deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely admitted in the course of a Likud forum meeting that Israel hasn’t got the tools to monitor what will happen to the Eritreans and Sudanese after they land in Africa. Unfortunately all the evidence to date points to the fact that at least Rwanda is not equipped to absorb tens of thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese. Rwanda is an extremely poor country, still licking its wounds from the genocide that took place there in 1994, within the framework of a bloody civil war, and is today full of refugees from neighboring countries, to whom it has neither jobs nor prospects to offer.
But the lies around this affair go beyond the basic facts of the situation. The government and the supporters of its policy are also engaged in spreading lies about the outcry within large sections of the liberal population in Israel against the plan. The prime minister recently argued that the campaign against the expulsion of the Africans, which is based according to him on nothing but lies, is being financed by his nemesis, Jewish billionaire George Soros.
Does Netanyahu really believe that hundreds of doctors, pilots, university staff and Holocaust survivors who signed ads and petitions against the expulsion did so because they were paid by Soros? And incidentally, Soros denies having anything to do with the campaign, even though as a liberal he supports the absorption of genuine refugees by the states in which they have landed.
In fact, what Netanyahu seems to be denying is that there is such a thing as a valid liberal ideological concern for human rights, which happens to be supported by international law, or that Israel – the nation state of a people that knows a thing or two about what it means to be refugees – has any moral duty to demonstrate special sensitivity toward anyone claiming to be a refugee, even if they happen to be non-Jewish or black.
We do not know at this juncture whether Israel will actually manage to realize its plan and “load” 600 recalcitrant Eritreans and Sudanese every month onto planes headed for Rwanda and Uganda. Furthermore, if a majority refuse to leave, the Prisons Authority has already announced it does not have enough space for so many new inmates, especially since the High Court of Justice recently ruled that something must be done urgently about the already overcrowded prisons in Israel.
So perhaps if international law and moral obligations do not impress our government, practical considerations will. In the final reckoning, why can’t the government simply embark on a policy of dispersing the 38,000 Eritreans and Sudanese, who already today form an important part of the work force in several economic sectors, and relieve the southern neighborhoods of Tel Aviv of the excessively large concentrations of them?
This will not necessarily resolve the difficult social problems of southern Tel Aviv, which existed before the Africans ever set foot in Israel and will undoubtedly continue to exist after they have gone. However, it will do away with yet another lie that sullies our public discourse.