President Reuven Rivlin on Thursday expressed his support for a controversial plan to deport thousands of African migrants and asylum seekers to an African country, saying that Israel must take care of its own before the poor of other nations.
“We are in a situation whereby for quite a few years we have had to deal with the problem, to grab the bull by its horns and to understand that the needy among our people come before the poor of another, while at the same time [acknowledging] we have a duty to every refugee,” Rivlin said. “First of all, we have to take care of our people, our citizens. We need to ease their lives.”
The president was answering questions about the migrant issue during a conference of ambassadors and heads of Israeli diplomatic missions to countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, according to a statement from his office.
“I think that the decisions taken by the government, each in its own direction and in its logic, are of great significance and logic even when sometimes it feels otherwise,” Rivlin said.
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. Rwanda and Uganada have been widely reported as the possible destination countries.
“We know as human beings and as a moral people to reach out a hand to refugees,” Rivlin told the diplomats and recalled that he was a student when former prime minister Menachem Begin allowed 360 Vietnamese refugees to come to Israel in the late 1970s.
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. 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.
Rivlin said he has had meetings with foreign ministry officials and that “there is a lot of attention paid to all the criticism.”
The president stressed to the diplomats the importance that “those who must make the decisions will be able to make decisions that you can explain in the world.”
So far, he noted, “every time I have international meetings with the UN and its institutions, on all issues connected to the refugees, those I have met with have expressed their admiration for the patience and tolerance of the State of Israel. We need not only to be right, but also wise and human.”
“The duty to refugees is a moral duty of the highest priority, which if we want to be a light unto the nations, we must be dedicated to,” the president added.
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.