Middle East

Israel keeps on abusing African asylum seekers

Ran HaCohen (PhD), Middle East Correspondent

 Voluntariness is a tricky concept in Jewish religious tradition. A classical case is divorce rules: when a Jewish woman wants a divorce, her husband is the only one who can give her that. But if he refuses, the Rabbis can pressure him to give a divorce until he says: “I am willing”. The pressure may include anything from fine through imprisonment to physical punishment.

About 2,500 African (mostly Eritrean and Sudanese) asylum seekers are held without trial in Israeli jails. Israel now uses a phony concept of “voluntariness” to deport hundreds of them back to Sudan, having obtained their “consent” while in prison. The UN Refugee Agency representative in Israel had warned that “deporting Sudanese to Sudan would be the gravest violation possible of the refugee convention that Israel has signed – a crime never before committed”; nevertheless, at least one thousand Sudanese have been deported this way in the past few months.

How this “voluntary consent” is obtained we now know from the story of T.H., an Eritrean asylum seeker who underwent the same procedure: the Israeli authorities let him chose between three years in jail and a “voluntary deportation”, he told Ha’aretz last March. No other options were offered, especially not that of applying for an asylum as the law stipulated. Following his “voluntary consent”, T.H. was put on a flight to Kampala through Cairo. He was refused entry in Uganda and sent back to Cairo. Against his will he was put on a flight to Asmara; his whereabouts are now unknown.

That’s how the jailed Africans are treated. But there are some 60,000 asylum seekers still free in Israel’s streets, those who had arrived before June 2012, when the automatic jailing started. To plague them, Israel’s new government now intends to criminalize their money transfers. Asylum seekers will not be allowed to send any money abroad as long as they are in Israel. Even upon departure, they would not be allowed to take with them more than a limited small amount (the minimum wage for every month they stayed in Israel). Violators risk six months imprisonment or a heavy fine.

There is no other way to describe this outrageous draft – already confirmed for legislation by the government –except as a state-organized robbery of the poorest, weakest and most abused workers. Israel does not bother to check whether these people are refugees or migrant workers; it treats them all as “infiltrators”. Their visa states it is not a work permit, but the government has promised that they will not be punished for working. They are hired mostly on an hourly or daily basis, and some employers abuse their vague status to pay them ridiculous wages or not to pay at all. If involved in any conflict, with an employer for example, an “infiltrator” can be jailed indefinitely without trial; employers abuse that as well. Nor can “infiltrators” obtain a business license, so that their shops are all unlicensed and regularly raided by police and municipal authorities that confiscate anything they find. And now comes the new law that stipulates the money they earned under such circumstances cannot be sent abroad.

Officially the aim of the proposed law is to deter further migrants from Africa. This is a blatant untruth: recently, the fence along Israel’s long border with Egypt has been completed and the number of asylum seekers entering Israel has dropped to zero, literally. What, then, is the aim of the new law? Human rights activists suspect the intention is to criminalize as many asylum seekers as possible, send them to jail, and then pressure them to consent to their so-called “voluntary deportation”. <


Caption: Darfur refugees protesting in Israel

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