US Jewish groups to Netanyahu: Deporting Africans ‘betrays Jewish values’
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US Jewish groups to Netanyahu: Deporting Africans ‘betrays Jewish values’

ADL, HIAS express 'grave concerns' over new plan that would see migrants and asylum seekers flown to unnamed third countries against their will

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

African migrants clash with Israeli soldiers after they left Holot detention center in southern Israel and walked towards the Border with Egypt near the southern Israeli Kibbutz of Nitzana, Friday, June, 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
African migrants clash with Israeli soldiers after they left Holot detention center in southern Israel and walked towards the Border with Egypt near the southern Israeli Kibbutz of Nitzana, Friday, June, 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

WASHINGTON — Two American Jewish organizations expressed “grave concerns” on Monday over Israel’s plan to deport thousands of African migrants and asylum seekers, telling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the controversial plan betrayed Jewish values.

“The sweeping nature of this deportation scheme, coupled with the extreme difficulty to access the Israeli asylum system is having a devastating impact on the refugee community in Israel and betrays the core values that we, as Jews, share,” said the letter sent by the heads of the Anti-Defamation League and the leading Jewish immigration advocacy group, HIAS.

In the open letter, signed by ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt and HIAS President Mark Hetfield, both groups “strongly urged” Netanyahu’s government to “refrain from implementing this plan.”

Greenblatt and Hetfield called on the prime minister to adopt a refugee policy consonant with international law, one that would grant protection to those legitimately fleeing violence or extreme persecution by allowing them to live in Israel until it is safe for them to return home.

There are approximately 38,000 Africans in Israel who consider themselves asylum seekers, according to the Interior Ministry. Most arrived between 2006 and 2012, and the vast majority are Sudanese or Eritrean. Many live in South Tel Aviv, and some residents and activists have blamed them for rising crime rates and lobbied the government for deportation.

Earlier this month, cabinet ministers approved a plan to imprison migrants who refuse to leave “voluntarily.” The prime minister was also reportedly seeking ways to forcibly expel undocumented asylum seekers, to reduce strain on the prison system.

African migrants protesting outside the Holot detention facility in February 2014. (Flash90)

Netanyahu has announced deals to send migrants to third-party countries in Africa, but has refused to divulge their identity, though reports have named the countries as Uganda and Rwanda.

The signatories of Monday’s letter, however, said reports indicated that migrants forced to leave were not finding safe havens elsewhere.

“Testimonies of people who were relocated by Israel to third countries in Africa indicate that they did not find durable protection there and risked their lives by taking dangerous onward journeys through conflict zones in South Sudan, Sudan and Libya to seek protection elsewhere,” the letter said. “Some have drowned at sea en route to Europe, while others were reportedly detained, tortured and extorted by human traffickers.

“Those forced to leave Israel under the current Israeli government plan,” it continued, “will likely face similar conditions and challenges.”

Israel tacitly recognizes that Sudanese and Eritreans cannot return to their dangerous homelands, so it has signed deals with third countries that agree to accept departing migrants on the condition that they consent to the arrangement, according to activists.

In August 2017, the High Court of Justice ruled that the policy was legal, but also said that Israeli authorities had to first ensure that the countries to which migrants were being deported were safe.

Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt speaking at the organization’s Never is Now conference in New York City, November 17, 2016. (Courtesy of the ADL)

Africans who are in Israel currently hold short-term residence visas that must be renewed every two months.

The government  also decided in November to close the Holot Detention Center, an open facility in the Negev desert that holds roughly 1,200 migrants, who are allowed to leave during the day to work. It is scheduled to be closed in March.

The letter’s authors stressed that the way Israel handles the plight of refugees, particularly those fleeing persecution, has a deep resonance with Jews and Israel.

“As American Jews, one of our greatest concerns is the well-being and security of Israel,” they said. “We want to see it prosper and overcome all of the challenges its precarious location imposes on it. We also care about our shared Jewish values and refugee heritage — a very human concern that reaches across borders and distances — and unifies us as a people.”

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