The UN’s refugee agency called on Israel Sunday to reform its policies toward African asylum-seekers, after tens of thousands of migrants demonstrated against involuntary detentions and rules which, they say, treat them as criminals.
In a statement released Sunday, the UN High Commissioner on Refugees criticized Israeli policies towards the African migrants, particularly in regard to the conditions at the Holot detention center, and appealed to policy makers to consider alternative measures to deal with the asylum seekers.
The statement said Israel’s policies were sowing fear and Jerusalem should stop defining them as asylum seekers and grant them protection.
Earlier in the day, an estimated 30,000 migrants participated in a march that began in Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park and ended with a demonstration in Rabin Square at which the crowd chanted “No more prison, no more deportation. We are refugees, we need asylum.”
However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed back, saying that demonstrations would not curb deportation efforts.
“Protests will not help. Strikes will not help,” Netanyahu posted on his official Facebook page. “We completely halted the infiltration into Israel and now we are determined to remove the illegal infiltrators that entered Israel. Last year we increased sixfold the number of infiltrators that left, to more than 2,600, and the goal this year is to increase this figure even more.”
In a previous Facebook post, Netanyahu stressed that “these are not refugees, but people who are breaking the law and whom we will deal with to the fullest extent of the law.”
The migrants, mostly asylum seekers from Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia, are demanding official refugee status and are protesting the Israeli government’s policy of holding them for long periods in the new Holot detention facility in the Negev.
Holot, an open detention facility, replaces the Saharonim prison complex, where migrants had been held until December, following a High Court of Justice decision that ruled that some measures implemented, including the decision to hold migrants for up to three years without judicial review, were unconstitutional.
On top of the Tel Aviv rally, some 300 asylum seekers in Eilat held a protest Sunday morning outside the Interior Ministry building.
In addition to the public protests, the migrants announced a three-day work strike from Sunday that will see them staying home from their jobs in restaurants, hotels and other workplaces throughout the country.
MK Eli Yishai, a former Interior minister who led the effort to deport African migrants, slammed the rally and called for the continued efforts to remove the migrants from Israel, calling them a threat to the Jewish majority in Israel.
“The infiltrator rally in the first Hebrew city, which has long since become an African city, is a loud and clear [wake-up] call to the State of Israel, and law-enforcement authorities to exhaust and find all the possible measures to return the infiltrators to their countries,” Yishai said.
Yishai appealed to the Israeli government to maintain the same “tough and uncompromising” stance on the matter that he did in his term as minister of Internal Affairs.
As a signatory of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Israel cannot deport asylum seekers if they face danger in their country of origin and, as such, grants Eritreans collective protection, but does not recognize them as refugees.
However, Israel has pursued a controversial option of “voluntary deportation,” in which migrants agree to leave — either to their country of origin or a third country — in exchange for monetary compensation.
Israel has largely stemmed the flow of African migrants into the country by upgrading the border fence with Egypt, but has sparked controversy over its handling of the refugee claims of those already here — very few of which are upheld. It is also grappling with fierce opposition in some quarters to the migrants’ presence, notably from residents in the southern Tel Aviv neighborhoods where many live.
Israeli officials argue that since most of the migrants cross more than one border to get to Israel, they are not genuine refugees but economic migrants. Spokespeople for the migrants counter that if countries like Egypt refuse to let them stay, they have no choice but to seek refuge elsewhere, including in Israel.