Former justice slams government treatment of African migrants

Elyakim Rubinstein ‘struggles to understand’ how only 12 asylum requests approved; hundreds of migrants go on hunger strike over deportation plan

African migrants march from Holot detention center to the Saharonim Prison, on February 22, 2018. (AFP  / MENAHEM KAHANA)
African migrants march from Holot detention center to the Saharonim Prison, on February 22, 2018. (AFP / MENAHEM KAHANA)

Elyakim Rubinstein, a former attorney general and former Supreme Court judge, slammed Israel’s treatment of African migrants on Thursday, saying the pace in which asylum requests were being dealt with was “far from satisfactory.”

“It is hard for me to understand how only 12 asylum seekers have received recognition as refugees, such a tiny percentage compared to what has been reported about other countries,” Rubinstein told the Hadashot news outlet.

Rubinsten’s comments came as Israel was in the midst of seeking to deport or jail tens of thousands of African migrants seeking asylum in the country. The policy has been criticized by human rights groups and others, who have pointed out the large backlog of asylum requests and low rate of acceptance.

Israeli officials stress that no one they classify as a refugee or asylum seeker will be deported, but officials have claimed that most migrants are only seeking employment and a higher standard of living, rather than fleeing persecution.

Retired Supreme Court justice Elyakim Rubinstein, near his office in the Supreme Court building (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“Thousands of requests are waiting to be discussed in the relevant forums and the pace is very far from satisfactory,” said Rubinstein, who also served in the past as a diplomat. “We are a country that wants to be civilized, to have rule of law and proper and appropriate legal procedures.

“The State of Israel was established as a refuge for persecuted Jews, and our traditions command us to be cautious regarding removal of foreigners, even if there is no choice in many cases,” added Rubinstein, who served on the Supreme Court from 2004 to 2017 after six years as attorney general.

“In Yiddish, it’s called being a mensch.”

According to Interior Ministry figures, there are currently some 42,000 African migrants in Israel, half of them children, women or men with families, who are not facing the April deportation deadline. Most are from Eritrea and Sudan.

Israel plans to start by tackling the cases of single men who have not submitted asylum applications, or whose applications have been rejected.

The government has offered them a choice: leave by early April to their homelands or a third country, or face indefinite detention in prison.

African migrants protest outside the Saharonim Prison, a detention facility for African asylum seekers, in the southern Negev desert near the Egyptian border on February 22, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)

As many could face danger if returned to their home countries, Israel is proposing to send them to an unnamed third country, which migrants and aid workers say is Rwanda or Uganda.

Authorities on Tuesday transferred the first Eritrean detainees, detained at the Holot open detention center, to Saharonim Prison after they refused to leave the country.

Israeli authorities said nine had been jailed, while migrants said the number was 12.

Eritrean asylum seekers and activists outside the Holot detention facility in southern Israel, January 29, 2018. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

On Thursday, hundreds of African migrants protested outside the prison where they have been incarcerated.

They marched a short distance from the Holot open detention center to Saharonim Prison, chanting slogans and carrying signs demanding the prisoners’ release.

They said they were on a hunger strike and vowed to continue it until a solution is reached.

Clasping their hands over their heads, protesters chanted: “We are not criminals, we are refugees! No deportation, no more prison, we are not for sale, we are asylum seekers! Bring back our brothers!”

Muluebrhan Ghebrihimet, a 27-year-old Eritrean, said that when he arrived in Israel six years ago, he had filed an asylum application, but it was rejected.

Detained African migrants inside the Holot detention center, located in Israel’s southern Negev desert near the Egyptian border,February 4, 2018. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP)

“We are here to seek asylum, not to work or become rich,” he said.

He did not know when he would be sent to prison.

A wave of African migrants arrived in Israel after 2007, crossing the border from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

The porous border has since been largely sealed off, putting an end to arrivals.

Migrants settled in the poor neighborhoods of southern Tel Aviv, but their presence has caused friction with some Israelis.

Religious and conservative leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have presented Muslim and Christian migrants as a threat to Israel’s Jewish identity.

The government has been condemned by the United Nations’ refugee agency, academics and rights groups over its migrant plan.

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