Dozens of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers protested outside President Reuven Rivlin’s residence in Jerusalem Monday against planned forced deportations of African refugees to third-party countries said to be Uganda and Rwanda.
The demonstrators held signs reading “Don’t despair, we will strop the expulsion” and like a larger protest earlier Monday outside the Rwandan embassy in Herzilya, chanted “We are human beings!”
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.
There are approximately 38,000 African migrants and asylum seekers in Israel, according to the Interior Ministry. About 72 percent are Eritrean and 20 percent are Sudanese, and the vast majority arrived between 2006 and 2012. Many live in south Tel Aviv, and some residents and activists blame them for rising crime rates and have lobbied the government for deportation.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday said the tens of thousands of Africans who are living in Israel illegally are not legitimate refugees or asylum seekers, but instead are economic migrants.
“They aren’t refugees,” Netanyahu told his ministers at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting. “Or at least most of them aren’t.”
“Most of them are looking for jobs,” he asserted.
Many Eritreans work minimum-wage, manual labor jobs, since they do not have legal work permits.
At the Herzlia protest, which was attended by some 1000 asylum seekers who were joined by around 100 Israeli protesters, many of the demonstrators held signs of Eritrean refugees who were deported from Israel to Rwanda and died while trying to get to safety in another country.
There are no records of refugees who have successfully stayed in Rwanda. Asylum seekers and migrants deported to Rwanda have told The Times of Israel they are placed in transports and dropped off at an international border in the middle of the night, without documents, and told to cross illegally.
“We are here today to demonstrate against the arrangement between Israel and Rwanda to deport us for money,” said Halefom Sultan outside of the Rewandan embassy, a 33-year-old father of two from Eritrea who has been in Israel since 2009. “We cannot go back to Eritrea, and Israel knows this, but we should not have to go to Rwanda. Israel has the ability and responsibility to give us safety,” he said.
Helen Kidane, the director of the Eritrean Women’s Community Center, said they think 10 to 20 Eritreans who were deported from Israel in the past years have died while looking for safety in another country. “If Rwanda is so safe like Israel says, then why don’t refugees stay there?” she asked.
Two deported migrants were killed by the Islamic State terror group in Libya, on their way to attempt a dangerous Mediterranean sea crossing to Europe.
Kidane said she was heartened by local initiatives such as the Anne Frank Home Sanctuary Movement. Last week, Rabbis for Human Rights, led by activist Rabbi Susan Silverman, announced that they would personally hide asylum seekers facing deportation in their homes. The movement has inspired a fierce debate in Israel about whether the initiative’s use of Holocaust references and Anne Frank is appropriate or divisive.
Also on Monday, three El Al pilots announced on Facebook they would refuse to fly deported asylum seekers to their destinations. German pilots used the same tactic to stop 222 planned deportations from Germany to places like Afghanistan. The act is mostly symbolic since El Al does not fly directly to Rwanda or Uganda, and deported migrants usually fly on other airlines through Ethiopia or Jordan. Netanyahu said in November he hopes to start direct flights from Tel Aviv to Kigali.