A group of North American Jewish leaders sent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a letter Monday urging him to rethink plans to deport tens of thousands of African refugees, offering to assist in their care.
“We are asking Israel to do the right thing, the Jewish thing, to be a light unto the nations in the way we treat the strangers among us,” read the letter sent by heads of groups including HIAS, the leading Jewish immigration advocacy group; the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; the National Council of Jewish Women, J-Street and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.
The group initially sent a letter to Netanyahu in November urging him not to deport asylum seekers and the Prime Minister’s Office responded weeks later challenging the description of African migrants as refugees or those seeking shelter from persecution or war.
The letter sent Monday was meant to respond to the PMO’s claims, noting that many migrants from Sudan and Eritrea had applied for refugee status, but were not being treated fairly.
“We know that many of [the migrants] are indeed asylum seekers and refugees deserving of protection, and we are deeply concerned for their welfare,” the new letter read.
“We also know that outside of Israel approximately 56 percent of Sudanese and 84% of Eritrean asylum applicants have been accepted as refugees. The fact that fewer than 1% of Sudanese and Eritrean asylum applicants in Israel have received refugee status casts serious doubts on the validity of Israel’s asylum process as it currently stands.”
Last week, government ministers approved a plan to imprison illegal migrants who refuse to leave “voluntarily.” The prime minister was also reportedly seeking ways to forcibly expel undocumented asylum seekers, to reduce strain on the prison system.
The prime minister told his ministers that there were some 60,000 illegal immigrants, but 20,000 have left.
Netanyahu has announced deals to send migrants to third-party countries in Africa, but has refused to divulge where they are.
However, the letter signatories said reports indicated that migrants forced to leave were not finding safe havens elsewhere.
“Your letter also assures us that you will continue to work ‘with the utmost sensitivity to the welfare and well-being of these migrants.’ These assurances are unfortunately difficult to believe in the face of continued testimonies that those deported from Israel have faced exploitation, human trafficking, and even death,” the letter read.
JTA contributed to this report.