Some 100 activists gathered in a Tel Aviv square Saturday night to protest a government plan to transfer thousands of African migrants out of Israel, while a similar number held a counter rally in support of the initiative.
The protesters — who object to the government’s controversial effort to resettle thousands of primarily Sudanese and Eritrean migrants to other countries in Africa — called on Jerusalem to not deport the asylum-seekers, insisting their safety could not be guaranteed.
Demonstrators at the city’s Habima Square waved flags and carried signs that bore anti-deportation slogans, with some referencing the status of the Jewish people following the Holocaust in an attempt to show solidarity with African migrants, Israeli news website Ynet reported.
“We are here to protest the deterioration of relations with asylum seekers,” said demonstrator Sharon Levana. “[The government] has decided to leave them in a third country, dumping them there without any rights or status. We call on the new government to come to its senses, to implement international standards and show some compassion. We were also refugees, we know what that means.”
The protesters criticized a measure introduced in March to resettle migrants unable to go back to their countries of origin to refugee camps in Uganda and Rwanda.
Migrants who refuse to be resettled or voluntarily receive compensation to go back to their countries of origin could face indefinite confinement in the Holot detention center in southern Israel, under the proposal.
The new measure was enacted following the Supreme Court’s decision last year that banned the indefinite detention of African migrants.
Interior Minister Gilad Erdan announced the plan on March 31, saying that deported refugees will be secure in a third country, where they will not face reprisals for desertion or for traveling to Israel, which is considered an enemy state in Sudan, and which has no relations with Eritrea.
“The move will encourage infiltrators to leave the State of Israel in a safe and dignified manner and will effectively fulfill our duty toward the citizens of Israel and south Tel Aviv, who will be able to return the fabric of life they were used to,” Erdan told Channel 2 news then, using the government’s official term for asylum-seekers.
The demonstrators were met by a group of about 100 counter-protesters rallying in support of the government plans.
Sheffi Paz, a resident of south Tel Aviv, where many of the Migrants have settled, said she was in favor of the proposal.
“These organizations always try and fight any attempt by the government to find a solution to the harsh reality that we live in,” Paz told Ynet. “It’s the only solution that seems reasonable.”
Holot is an “open” facility in southern Israel that is currently home to some 2,500 African asylum seekers. Inmates are required to check in during morning and evening hours but are free to leave during the day. The maximum detention term in the facility is mandated by law as 20 months.
Expulsion to a third country is largely unprecedented in the Western world. Italy and Australia signed similar agreements with third-party countries — Italy with Libya and Australia with Malaysia — but both proposals were shot down by local courts. In both cases, courts ruled the bills inconsistent with international law and the 1951 UN convention on refugees — to which Israel is also a party.
Thus far, Israel has recognized only four Eritreans and Sudanese nationals as official asylum seekers, out of a total of 5,573 who applied for that status.
A Supreme Court injunction in September 2014 declared the detention of asylum seekers for an unspecified amount of time as unconstitutional and ordered the Holot facility closed by December 22. The court granted the government three months to find an alternative policy before it repealed the law completely.
In light of that ruling, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, together with the Interior Ministry, made new amendments to the law in November that allowed for illegal immigrants to be detained for up to 20 months without trial — a change that, in effect, allowed Holot to remain open.
Over the course of 2014, 8,500 migrants residing in Israel left the state of their own volition, 7,000 of them back to their home countries, and 1,500 to other countries that granted them asylum status. Some have complained that after they returned to their home countries they were harshly abused.