Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday dismissed criticism of his government’s controversial plan to deport thousands of African asylum seekers from Israel to a third-party country, arguing that the people slated for deportation are not actual refugees.
“We are not taking action against refugees,” said Netanyahu at the beginning of the weekly cabinet meeting. “We are taking action against illegal immigrants who come here for work purposes. Israel will continue to be a shelter for true refugees and will eject illegal infiltrators.”
Last month, the Knesset approved an amendment to the so-called Infiltrator’s Law mandating the closure of the Holot detention facility and the forced deportations of Eritrean and Sudanese migrants and asylum seekers starting in March. Netanyahu announced deals to send the migrants to third-party countries in Africa, but has refused to specify the countries, though reports have named them as Uganda and Rwanda.
However, last week both Rwandan and Ugandan politicians denied that their countries would accept asylum seekers forcibly deported from Israel.
Last week, two American Jewish organizations expressed “grave concerns” over Israel’s planned deportations, telling Netanyahu the plan betrayed Jewish values.
“The sweeping nature of this deportation scheme, coupled with the extreme difficulty to access the Israeli asylum system, is having a devastating impact on the refugee community in Israel and betrays the core values that we, as Jews, share,” said the letter sent by the heads of the Anti-Defamation League and the leading Jewish immigration advocacy group, HIAS.
Netanyahu said Sunday that he had “heard the many claims,” but that the arrangements “guarantee personal safety for those who exit Israel. They receive approvals allowing them to live, work and integrate into the country. If they want, they can also return to their home countries. They are receiving significant financial aid from us.”
“Don’t forget that Israel has been investing a fortune in them during their stay, and will do so also while they travel to the third-party country to continue their lives,” he added.
“The arrangements I describe here are approved by the justice system and are continuously supervised by officials from Israel and the third country. I have approved additional funds to accelerate the examination of requests for asylum in Israel. This policy is perfectly in line with the Supreme Court’s orders and with international law, and therefore the claims voiced against us are baseless.”
Israel tacitly recognizes that Sudanese and Eritreans cannot return to their dangerous homelands, so it has signed deals with third-party countries that agree to accept departing migrants on the condition that they consent to the arrangement, according to activists.
Israel’s Population Immigration and Borders Authority (PIBA) has already started filling approximately 100 new positions to start carrying out the deportations in March, with some salaries as high as NIS 30,000 ($8,800) per month for a two-year contract. PIBA estimated that the deportation will cost an estimated NIS 300 million ($86 million), including an “exit grant” of $3,500 to each migrant and asylum seeker who leaves and, in the cases of migrants destined for Rwanda, a reported payout of $5,000 per head to the Rwandan government.
Rwanda and Uganda have already accepted about 4,000 migrants and asylum seekers who signed a document saying they had “willingly left” Israel, but the countries so far have not accepted any forcibly deported migrants.
In August 2017, the High Court of Justice ruled that the policy was legal, but also said that Israeli authorities had to first ensure that the countries to which migrants were being deported were safe.
There are approximately 38,000 African migrants and asylum seekers in Israel, according to the Interior Ministry. About 72 percent are Eritrean and 20% are Sudanese, and the vast majority arrived between 2006 and 2012. Many live in south Tel Aviv, where some residents and activists have blamed them for rising crime rates and lobbied the government for deportation.
Africans who are in Israel currently hold short-term residence visas that must be renewed every two months.