November's Director's Note
The Dark Road to Nowhere
For many weeks now, we have been hearing the rhetoric of Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, Minister of Public Security, Gilad Erdan, and Minister of the Interior A`rye Deri, regarding the expulsion of the 35,000 African asylum-seekers left in Israel.
The politicians have led the courts and the public to believe that by expelling them to Rwanda (up to now called, the third country), we would be actually helping them, by giving them documents, they would have legal status and could all settle happily in Rwanda. (almost the American dream!!)
“Increased removal” is how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at a recent cabinet meeting, called the new policy in which asylum seekers will be required to choose between leaving Israel for Rwanda and being jailed indefinitely.
What does this “increased removal” mean to these asylum seekers? And what will their lives be like after they have been deported from Israel? The answers to these questions comes from reports and statements made by refugees who had left Israel “voluntarily” in the last years, and gathered by Israeli researchers Lior Birger, Shahar Shoham and Liat Boltzman, in Europe in the last few months. Part of the findings appear, written by Lior Birger in Haaretz on November 23rd. In addition, we have almost identical testimonies, gathered in Uganda, a few months back, by JACC Board member, Yael Agur- Orgal.
Although the refugees were told that they would enter Rwanda legally, the moment they arrived at Rwanda airport their travel documents were confiscated and they were led into the country through a side door, never reaching passport control. And so, the nightmare starts; from the airport, they are taken to a hotel, where they are locked in a room and threatened that they must leave Rwanda immediately.
“Sometimes they are threatened and all their money is stolen from them upon landing. They are transferred to smugglers who, in return for hundreds or sometimes thousands of dollars, send them to Uganda. From there they are transferred in a similar fashion to South Sudan, to Sudan and on to Libya, from where they try to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Without identity documents, they are often subject to imprisonment by the authorities in various countries.
Based on dozens of testimonies and other research, we estimate that hundreds have died in the torture camps in Libya or drowned at sea.” *
It is impossible in this short newsletter to relate the awful testimonies, I have read, so I will mention just two that stood out for me:
“This common practice of imprisoning refugees and collecting ransom to release them is also found in the testimony of Kiflom, who left Israel in April 2016. He agreed to leave so he could get out of Holot. Today he lives in Berlin. He describes how his documents were taken away from him in Rwanda, how he was held prisoner in a hotel and forced to pay to reach Uganda.
They told me, ‘’you have money, you go. You don’t have money, you go to sleep in the street.’” After paying hundreds of dollars, he managed to reach Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. There he was picked up by the local police and put in jail. “You go out in Sudan at night, you don’t go out during the day. After a week all our money was gone,” he says. “There are soldiers, police along the way. They take a lot of money along the way, thieves too.”
In a Sudanese jail they threatened to send him back to Eritrea, from which he fled, and he called friends who raised money for him and managed to release him after two weeks. Even though the threat was not carried out in his case, Kiflom says that many others, including his brother, were deported from Sudan and South Sudan back to Eritrea, which is run by a military dictatorship. “People who were on the way from Khartoum to Libya, they caught all of them together, my brother too – caught all of them and returned them to Eritrea,” he said.
One of his friends who had also come from Israel was deported back to Eritrea from Sudan along with his wife. “He told them in Eritrea that he had been in Sudan. He was imprisoned for six months, and then they sent him to learn to be a soldier in the army. After that he fled again from Eritrea to Ethiopia,” Kiflom says.
Another Eritrean named Tesfay also describes the fear of being sent back to Eritrea while in Sudan. “There are workers who take us back to our country” if asylum seekers are walking around in Khartoum in the evening, he said.
Tesfay also provides evidence of human trafficking. He tells of paying $700 to a smuggler who promised to take him to Juba, the capital of South Sudan. Then he was sold to another smuggler. “We told them we have already paid $700 a person, but they said they don’t know him and if we don’t give them the money they will kill us.” Tesfay also told about abuse and harsh treatment on the way to Juba: “They threw us on the floor, we didn’t eat or drink water They cut me, beat me, that’s how my blood came out.” **
In conclusion, I would like to suggest to our politicians, that instead of spending millions and millions of dollars to send them back to a hell, worse than any of us can even imagine. That it would be more humane, more in line with Jewish values and more economically sound to recognize our obligation to protect refugees and to give them refugee status, that they all so richly deserve. To allow them to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, and to find some peace, here in the Holy Land!
*Lior Birkin, Haaretz November 23, 2017
** Yarden Zur and Shay Zilber, Haaretz November 25, 2017