Thousands of African migrants protest deportations at Rwandan embassy
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Thousands of African migrants protest deportations at Rwandan embassy

'Would you deport me if I were white?' ask white-painted demonstrators as Israel's expulsion effort gets underway

African asylum seekers and human rights activists protest against the deportation plan, in front of the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya, on February 7, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
African asylum seekers and human rights activists protest against the deportation plan, in front of the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya, on February 7, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Several thousand Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers protested outside the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya on Wednesday over the country’s agreement with Israel allowing them to be forcibly deported there.

According to organizers, the protest is one of many planned at Rwandan embassies around the world.

One organizer, Togod Omer from Sudan, said in a speech at the rally, “There is now an international crisis surrounding refugees.

“Instead of protecting them,” he charged, Israel was kicking them out.

Israeli authorities have launched a major drive to deport the vast majority of the 38,000 African asylum seekers and migrants still in the country, most of whom are from Eritrea and Sudan. Thousands of the migrants have been told they have 60 days to accept an offer to leave the country for an unnamed African destination — known through press reports to be Rwanda — in exchange for $3,500 and a plane ticket. Those who don’t leave by April 1 will be incarcerated indefinitely.

The protesters urged Rwanda and its president, Paul Kagame, not to cooperate with the plan.

Protesters carried signs reading, “We will not fall into despair, we will stop this deportation,” “Recognizing refugees is a moral requirement,” “We don’t believe the racists,” and “Kagame — We’re not for sale.”

African asylum seekers and rights activists protest against deportation in front of the Rwandan Embassy in Herzliya, on February 7, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Some protesters painted their faces white and held up banners reading, “Deported to death because I’m black,” and “Would you deport me if I were white?”

Israeli officials insist the vast majority of the migrants, whom they refer to as “infiltrators,” are job seekers, and therefore do not have a special right to remain in the country after entering it illegally. The officials object to claims the policy is racist, noting that some 4,000 white Ukrainian and Georgians were deported for immigration offenses in 2017.

Backers of the asylum seekers’ protest insist Israel has not been doing the minimum required by the 1951 Refugee Convention to ascertain whether the migrants are refugees. Only some 6,500 asylum seekers have gone through the Interior Ministry’s refugee status determination process, and just 11 of them, or 0.16 percent, were found eligible. Similar processes in most European countries found double-digit percentages qualified as refugees for migrant populations from Eritrea and Sudan.

Awat Ashbar, a 37-year-old Eritrean in Israel since 2008, said at the protest that he had “applied for asylum, but still haven’t heard an answer. If all my friends are being deported, then I’ll also be deported. I’m scared.”

African asylum seekers protest against deportation in front of the Rwandan Embassy in Herzliya, on February 7, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

He told the Ynet news site that he preferred to be jailed in Israel than deported from it. “If the state decides I should be in jail, of course I’ll be in jail. What can I do? You’re seeking asylum, not jail, but if the state says you go to jail, you go to jail. You don’t have a choice.”

Several dozen of Wednesday’s protesters were Israelis who wanted to support the asylum seekers. One activist, Gidi Eisen, 26, told Ynet, “This is the face of our country, and it’s very sad what we’re doing to them. They’re refugees who came here, the state of the Jews, to receive protection, and we respond by wanting to deport them to places where they could be kidnapped, killed or meet the Islamic State.

“I have a hard time with all the lies that are being told. If people listen to their stories, they’ll discover a history of atrocities. The apathy of a country founded by Holocaust survivors is intolerable,” Eisen said.

Amnon Rubinstein, a legal scholar, former lawmaker and the author of Israel’s Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, criticized the government’s deportations policy.

“We’re signed on the refugee convention that requires two things of us: to check every [asylum] request individually — and we’ve done that only for a small number of those who live here — and the second thing, not to return them to countries where they face danger. Those are the two things we are obligated to do, and we can do them,” Rubinstein said Wednesday.

“This number of 40,000 people isn’t an economic problem for us. There’s a problem of their concentration in south Tel Aviv, I can understand their neighbors,” he said. “But if you give them professional training, they’ll spread out throughout the country.”

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