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Anger mounts as Israel begins detention and deportation of African asylum seekers

Around 20,000 Israelis and African migrants took to the streets in Tel Aviv on February 24, protesting against a government policy of detaining and deporting African asylum seekers who refuse to leave the country. A few days earlier, a group of Eritrean asylum seekers held at a detention center in Israel went on hunger strike in protest against their imminent expulsion from the country.

In early February, Israel began issuing expulsion orders to African migrants and asylum seekers whose asylum claims had been refused by the government. Most were from Eritrea and Sudan. The orders, under new rules announced in December 2017, give people the choice to be sent to a “third country” by the end of March or face detention and imprisonment. The receiving countries will reportedly receive US$5,000 per asylum seeker they accept, while the asylum seekers themselves receive a plane ticket plus US$3,500 each.

The “third countries” have not been officially named, but they were reported to be Rwanda and Uganda – although both countries subsequently denied signing a deal with Israel.

It is the Israeli regime of deportation and detention that is the root cause for the distress of the African migrants and asylum seekers on its soil. It is almost impossible to even launch an asylum claim let alone become a recognized refugee. Merely 11 African asylum seekers, ten from Eritrea and one from Sudan, were given refugee status between 2009 and 2017.

However, in what might prove to be a landmark ruling, an Israeli special appeals court ruled on February 15 in the case of an Eritrean asylum seeker that desertion from the Eritrean military provided a valid claim for asylum. This ruling could affect many Eritreans threatened with deportation, but is unlikely to change wider attitudes among Israeli authorities, who in any case will appeal.

In early February there were multiple protests in front of Rwandan embassies in many countries, including the UK, Germany, and Israel under the slogan Tell Rwanda No Refugees4Sale. At a similar protest in front of the Rwandan embassy in Tel Aviv a few days earlier, Eritrean protesters staged a mock “slaves for sale” in Israel auction.

It is not Rwanda that is “selling” people, but Israel.

There are those Eritreans who have flown persecution as stipulated in the Refugee Convention and therefore should have their asylum claims assessed according to international refugee law. But it’s also wrong to assume that all of the people now threatened with deportation from Israel are innocent victims.

Eritreans and Sudanese people have arrived in Israel via different routes – some forced, and some voluntarily. There have been historic reports of Eritreans abducted in Sudan by Bedouin tribes, sold on and somehow ending up in Israel against their will. It might be that some of those who protested in Tel Aviv and elsewhere experienced that fate.

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