Story-ideas-1011172

Israel lambasted over African refugee crisis

  • JTAAfricanRefugees
Yikealo Beyene’s story is ­up to a point ­feelgood fodder for a Saturday morning talk at synagogue.
by RON KAMPEAS | Jan 18, 2018

As a refugee from Eritrea, he sought out Israel for the refuge it promised and cannot stop talking about the kindnesses that Israelis afforded him once he arrived. He lived in Israel for eight years, earning a bachelors and a master’s degree, and now lives in Seattle in the US, a leader of his community.

But Beyene’s story, which he related in a speech on Shabbat morning at Ohev Shalom - an Orthodox synagogue in Washington, known for its politically involved congregation -­ hit a bump towards the end. That’s when he brought up his mission, backed by the New York-based philanthropist Joey Low, to stop Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government from deporting or jailing thousands of refugees from Africa.

Some 60 000 African migrants entered Israel prior to the construction of a barrier on its southern border with the Sinai Peninsula in 2012. Israel, which considers them economic migrants, not refugees from persecution,  encouraged the Africans to leave by handing them cash ­- generally to the tune of about $3 500 (R43 000) ­- and a plane ticket. About 20 000 have taken the offer, leaving nearly 40 000 in Israel, most living freely.

Earlier this month, Netanyahu said those who did not take the deportation offer would face arrest. Rwanda and Uganda reportedly are the likeliest destinations for deportees, although both governments deny it.

In recent years, the refugees have made their way to Israel from various countries, including Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia.

“As much as I love Israel, I do not want to conceal how deeply concerned I am about the recent move by the government to expel African refugees and asylum seekers in Israel to Rwanda,” said Beyene (33).

Low (66), an investor who has donated millions of dollars to Israeli causes over the years, says convincing American Jews to pressure Israel on the issue is a long shot, but he is determined to try.

“You cannot do something like this in the name of Jews and Israel.”

His parents were Holocaust-era refugees, from Germany and Austria, and they loom large in his advocacy.

Protests by American Jews against the planned deportation have been confined to Jewish groups that are not reluctant to criticise the Israeli government on policy issues.

Even these groups, fighting what they see as threats to immigrants and minorities in the era of US President Donald Trump, lack the clout to make this a priority issue.

“The American Jewish community can be moved on these issues,” said Libby Lenkinski, vice-president for public engagement for the New Israel Fund, which funds groups that assist the African refugees in Israel. “But between that and making it a cause célèbre? There’s some distance.”

Russel Neiss, a St Louis-based activist, is keeping a running list online of organisations that advocated for Sudanese refugees from Darfur in the mid-2000s - ­when it was a signature Jewish advocacy issue in the US - ­ but that are silent now that Israel may expel Africans facing similar dangers. It is called “Never Again is a Lie”.

“This is not something that should be particularly difficult in terms of standing up for what’s right. It has never historically been a right or left issue,” he said. “A dozen years ago, you had the Jewish community engaging in activities for many of the refugees who are in Israel right now. We haven’t lived up to our own promises.”

Low wants the Jewish establishment to get involved and, to this end, has brought activists from Israel and former refugees such as Beyene to meet with major players. He  threatened to suspend his annual $100 000 (R 1.2m)  donation to philanthropic organisation the UJA-Federation of New York unless it agreed to a meeting with Unitaf Israel, a network of day-care centres for refugees, which it did..

The reaction at Ohev Shalom reflected the scepticism that the refugee advocates would face among conventional pro-Israel Jews. Some congregants peppered Beyene with questions such as, ‘Why Israel?’ and ‘What’s wrong with Rwanda?’, while others expressed genuine sympathy.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, who invited Beyene to speak, said Israel had to answer for its actions. “It is not like the Israeli-Palestinian issue, however complicated that is, where there are two sides responsible. This is how to make sure asylum seekers are safe.”

Netanyahu has cast the problem as a security threat, describing the 40 000 refugees as “illegal infiltrators.

Refugee advocates have decried the use of the word ‘infiltrator’, once reserved for terrorists, as racist. An Israeli official has been more restrained, calling them “neither refugees nor asylum seekers, but rather economic migrants who have come to Israel in search of work”.

Advocates for the Africans say the government vastly underestimates the number of migrants who would qualify under international law as refugees, noting that in other countries where Africans have found temporary refugee, 56% of Sudanese and 84% of Eritrean applicants have been given asylum. In Israel, it is less than 1%.

They also note that the countries from which the Africans arrive are genuinely beset not just by economic woes, but also by severe persecution on the basis of ethnicity and religious and political beliefs.

The advocates also question the rush to deport, asking: “Why now?” A border fence with Egypt that a previous government, headed by Netanyahu, erected in 2012 cut the rate of Africans seeking asylum to zero, Netanyahu often notes. The perception that crime festers where the refugees settle appears to be supported more by anecdotal evidence than by statistics. Advocates say their crowding in south Tel Aviv, already beset by poverty, demonstrates a failure by the Israeli government to accommodate the refugees across the country.

Africans who have taken the government’s offer of cash and a ticket to destinations in Africa report that they are often left without documents and vulnerable to robberies, or worse.

Others note that Netanyahu has recently boasted about the inroads he has gained on the African continent. Mass deportations or the incarceration of Africans would cloud the business deals and visits to Africa that Netanyahu has made over the past two years, said Yosef Abramowitz, an Israeli activist campaigning on behalf of the refugees, who has also done business in Africa.

“There’s no way they [government] are going to drag people out of homes in Israel and keep those relationships,” he said.

The refugees do not seek permanent status in Israel, Beyene said, but the chance he was afforded: to apply for refugee status in a third country. That process is long and leaves Africans in Israel for years, advocates acknowledge.

Abramowitz and Low said that, should Netanyahu go ahead with the arrests and deportations, there were a cadre of Israelis ready to take to the streets.

But, said Low, he might not be there to join in. “If they start deporting these people I cannot see myself going back to Israel.” (JTA)

1 Comment

  1. 1 nat cheiman 18 Jan
    Why can't pope Paul take a few hundred thousand migrants?
    Then Turkey, Egypt, Saudi, Qatar, Lebenon, Russia, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Uganda  New Zealand, Ethiopia, Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, The list of other countries is endless.
    Why Israel???

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