Frustrated South Tel Aviv residents, led by Shefi Paz, launched a demonstration on August 30 to pressure the government to keep its promise to rid the country of illegal infiltrators. It may have marked the last hurrah for proponents of forced deportation. Only 200-300 people attended the rally, compared with the 20,000 people who attended “Stop Forced Migration” rallies in South Tel Aviv on February 24 and Rabin Square on March 24.
During the first three months of the year, public opposition to forced deportation snowballed as extensive media coverage of the issue enabled Israelis to become aware of the conditions that led Eritreans and Sudanese to flee to Israel for freedom and protection.
Opposition to forced deportation came from residents of South Tel Aviv and the periphery, kibbutzniks and settlers beyond the Green Line, holocaust survivors, religious leaders, young people, educators, journalists, artists, pilots, businessmen, hi-tech innovators and human rights and refugee service organizations.
The February and March rallies demonstrated that a broad spectrum of Israeli society now says “no” to forced deportation and supports win-win solutions that will be mutually beneficial to African asylum seekers, South Tel Aviv neighborhoods and Israel.
By the end of March, it had become increasingly clear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition government could not deliver on their promise to forcibly deport African refugees to third-party African countries. Negotiations to send the Eritreans and Sudanese to Uganda and Rwanda collapsed when officials from those countries emphatically declared that they would only accept those asylum seekers who wanted to come freely.
Israel has a dilemma in implementing its deportation policies. It can’t forcibly deport Eritrean and Sudanese refugees to their home countries because the government adheres to the principle of non-refoulement that prohibits sending asylum seekers back to their home country if conditions there would put them in danger. It also can’t forcibly deport them to other African countries because of a High Court ruling. Finally, no African countries will accept asylum seekers who don’t come willingly.
ON APRIL 2, Netanyahu and Interior Minister Arye Deri held a hastily called press conference and announced that a deal had been made with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The UNHCR would help Israel resettle 16,250 refugees in western countries while Israel would allow an equal number of them to remain here.
The deal also saves Israel hundreds of millions of dollars which would be invested in South Tel Aviv and provides incentives to other localities to absorb the asylum seekers. Millions could be saved because there would no longer be the need to maintain detention centers and prisons for them, provide plane tickets and $3,500 per asylum seekers accepting voluntary deportation, and offer huge payoffs in cash, arms and technical assistance to countries agreeing to accept them.
After making his decision, Bibi was praised for his statesmanlike decision. However, the prime minister had neglected to inform his political base and other coalition members championing forced deportation about the radical shift in policy. Education Minister Bennett immediately denounced this betrayal of the coalition’s promise to rid Israel of its illegal infiltrators. In panic, Bibi responded by announcing that the decision was not final. By the end of the day he had canceled the deal.
When Eritrea and Ethiopia signed their peace treaty in Asmara on July 9, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked declared that Israel would deport Eritreans back to their homeland as soon as indefinite military conscription was canceled. She assumed that this action alone would make Eritrea safe again for its asylum seekers in Israel and justify shipping them back to their home country.
If Isaias Afwerki remains president, most Eritreans in Israel will refuse to return voluntarily. Recently, a high-ranking Eritrean official announced that the country welcomed all citizens wishing to return voluntarily. No forced deportation to Eritrea.
Shefi Paz and other local leaders showed their disdain for government officials and right-wing politicians and their broken promises by not inviting or letting them speak at the August 30 rally. They also criticized Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition government for having done nothing to improve living conditions in their neighborhoods.
IT IS NOW time for Shefi Paz and her supporters to recognize that deportation of all African asylum seekers is not feasible. If she really wants to radically reduce their numbers in South Tel Aviv, she should embrace the deal that the prime minister made with the UNHCR in April. That would remove over 16,000 of the 37,000 African asylum seekers from the country while several thousand others would be reallocated to the Negev and other parts of the country. Interior Minister Arye Deri has been quietly pursuing discussions with the UNHCR to revive the deal because the government has found no legal way to forcibly deport the refugees.
Shefi Paz could work with Shula Keshet, the leader of South Tel Aviv residents against forced deportation, to lobby for more funding for the rehabilitation and improvement of the quality of life in South Tel Aviv neighborhoods and to fight gentrification that will drive out low and middle-income residents. Representatives of all the stakeholders, including of African asylum seekers and foreign workers in South Tel Aviv, should participate in planning to ensure that programs reflect the needs and priorities of residents.
The three-year, $7.8 million rehabilitation program proposed by the government is totally inadequate. Residents of South Tel Aviv should work together to see that most of the millions of dollars saved by accepting a new UNHCR deal will be reallocated to their neighborhoods and other areas absorbing the Eritreans and Sudanese. This is the win-win solution for South Tel Aviv residents, African asylum seekers and Israel.
Sheldon Gellar is a Jerusalem-based international consultant specializing in African democracy, development and migration issues.