Two lawmakers from the left-wing Meretz party arrived in Rwanda on Thursday for a four-day visit aimed at “exposing” the Israeli government’s “failure” to deal with its African asylum seekers.
Michal Rozin and Mossi Raz will meet with public figures and human rights organizations in Rwanda and neighboring Uganda, the reported destination countries in Israel’s deportation plan, to explain the plan to expel thousands of African migrants and to try to convince them to oppose it.
Israel has deported approximately 4,000 asylum seekers to the two East African states since December 2013, when the deportation program started.
A new law shuttering a holding facility and forcing asylum seekers to leave or go to prison has seen Israel kick off a fresh deportation campaign this week. Israel began handing out deportation notices to asylum seekers renewing their two-month visa on Sunday.
“Instead of allowing them to submit asylum applications properly, instead of examining asylum requests in line with international agreements, and instead of revealing agreements made with ‘third-party countries,’ the Israeli government has decided to raise a sword above the heads of refugees and asylum seekers and to start deportation,” Rozin posted on Facebook after landing in the Rwandan capital, Kigali.
Under the plan, any of the 40,000 or so migrants who voluntarily leave Israel by the end of March will receive $3,500 and a plane ticket to the unnamed country.
On April 1, the immigration authority plans to begin imprisoning or forcibly expelling those who have not yet left.
Opponents of the plan say that Israel has not been doing the minimum required by the 1951 Refugee Convention to ascertain whether the migrants are refugees. Between 2009 and 2017, 15,400 people opened files seeking asylum with Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority.
The state denied asylum seeker status to 6,600 people, and 8,800 applications for asylum are still open. Israel has recognized refugee status for one Sudanese and 10 Eritreans, out of thousands of applications for asylum, an acceptance rate of 0.056%.
By contrast, the European Union has recognized asylum claims from 90% of Eritreans who apply for refugee status and 56% of Sudanese, according to the European Stability Institute.
In recent weeks, groups of Israeli pilots, doctors, writers, former ambassadors and Holocaust survivors have appealed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt the deportation plan, warning it was unethical and would cause grave damage to Israel’s self-described image as a light unto the nations.
Deportees to Rwanda have told The Times of Israel, and it has been widely reported in foreign media, that they are kept for a few days in a private home and then taken to the border with South Sudan or Uganda in the middle of the night.
They are told to cross without documents, and to request asylum seeker status in the new country when they cross the border.
On Monday, Netanyahu slammed some critics for waging a “campaign of lies” that are “based on empty slogans.” He also accused Jewish billionaire George Soros of funding a widespread campaign against the deportation plan.
On Wednesday, it was revealed that Israel is negotiating with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees to resettle some of the African asylum seekers in third countries deemed by the UN to be “safe,” possibly including Western countries, in exchange for some of the refugees to be given permanent residency in Israel.
Such a deal would likely halt Israel’s campaign in its current form.
Sharon Harel, the external relations officer at the UNHCR office in Israel, declined to name the countries interested in absorbing the refugees or what percentage of the refugees would be able to stay in Israel.
Melanie Lidman contributed to this report.