Israel was the main driver behind the 1951 UN Convention on the Rights of Refugees, but after signing it, it has never respected the rights of refugees. In fact, it has created one of the biggest refugee crisis the world has seen, says Journalist and Filmmaker Lia Tarachansky
SHARMINI PERIES: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
Supported by the right-wing elements of Israeli society, Israeli authorities have deported tens of thousands of African asylum seekers as a part of a longstanding plan to rid the country of non-Jewish refugees. According to the Ministry of the Interior, 72% of these African asylum seekers are of Eritrean origin, and 20% are Sudanese, some roughly one-third Christians from South Sudan. The vast majority of them have arrived between 2006 and 2012. The Israeli government has always maintained that these are economic refugees, therefore not “real refugees,” in quotes, hence disqualifying them as asylum seekers.
Recently, there has been a lot of press about the Israeli government striking a deal with Uganda and Rwanda to accept deported asylum seekers from Israel for $5,000 a head. Rwanda has denied this deal, but multiple sources have confirmed that Israel promised to pay $5,000 to Rwanda or Uganda for each asylum seeker that they accept. Additionally, Israel is also selling weapons to Rwanda and Uganda to seal the deal.
Now joining me is Lia Tarachansky. She is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. Along with Jesse Freeston, she co-directed the film <i>Ethnocracy in the Promised Land: Israel’s African Refugees.</i> Here’s a clip from it.
SPEAKER 2: [In Hebrew] Infiltrators, go home! Infiltrators, go home!
SPEAKER 4: Do you think the government should send them back to Africa?
SPEAKER 5: Yes. Just deploy police, army, and take these people to jail.
SPEAKER 6: They pretend Israel is a democratic country. But that’s just not true. There’s no democracy here. I know, I’ve been here for almost eight years, and I never saw any democracy or justice here.
SPEAKER 7: They exploit us. They allowed us into Israel to work as cheap manpower, doing heavy duty work like cleaning. After 7 years they’ve used us, and now put us in prison. This is a kind of exploitation.
SHARMINI PERIES: Lia, good to have you back on The Real News.
LIA TARACHANSKY: Thanks for having me.
SHARMINI PERIES: Lia, let’s start off by describing the community of asylum seekers. Who are they? What are they doing in Israel? How long have they been there? What is happening to them?
LIA TARACHANSKY: African asylum seekers started coming to Israel about a decade ago. Most of them came on foot through the Sinai Desert. That process and that journey has been documented to be extremely dangerous. Some of them have also come from other places than Eritrea and Sudan, which is where 85% of the refugees come from. Some of the refugees came from Nigeria and other countries on the west of Africa, but all of them, including the refugees from Cote d’Ivoire, have been deported already. The most recent deportations is what we’re hearing in the news right now, and that’s of refugees that are left over from Eritrea and Sudan.
SHARMINI PERIES: Tell us about why they are there, how long there have been asylum seekers in Israel, and what has been the political circumstances that they’re facing in Israel.
LIA TARACHANSKY: African asylum seekers started coming to Israel roughly around 2006. When they first started coming, most of them on foot through the Sinai Desert, they were actually welcomed and treated humanely. However, Israel, because it’s an ethnocracy, meaning that it’s not a country where you actually have a process for claiming refugee status and having your individual refugee status checked by the UNHCR, and the government, and so on, basically, because they didn’t have a path towards permanent residency, they were just left in this stateless situation in the borders of Israel.
What we’re seeing right now is really the triumph of the right, which a few years later started noticing more and more refugees coming, and rose up against them. This wave of rise-up by the right wing in Israel actually brought to force, to power some of the backbench politicians that are now in key positions in government, implementing what’s going on. That movement of the far right, the anti-immigration movement, succeeded to get basically no refugees to enter the country anymore. They led to the deportations of the majority of the refugees, and now we’re seeing the end of a long process of making Israel the first developed zero-refugee nation on Earth.
SHARMINI PERIES: The issue of refugees and asylum seekers is a very sensitive issue in the context of Israel’s own history and what the people of Israel and Jews have gone through. Give us a sense of how these deportations of asylum seekers are being perceived among ordinary Israelis.
LIA TARACHANSKY: I think that the claim that because Israel is a state that was created out of, or immediately following, the Holocaust makes it somehow more egregious when it deports refugees, I think that that cliché has been circulating and recirculating in the press quite a lot, but I think that the obligation of the state of Israel towards refugees is not unique. I think that every developed nation has the responsibility to take care of those that are within its borders. Because Israel doesn’t have a process for refugee recognition, that’s not possible in Israel.
All the other developed nations, in one way or another, have also been deporting refugees, but the issue with Israel is that unlike other developed nations, the people who come to Israel to claim asylum do not get checked. Their refugee status does not get checked. Instead, what Israel has is a system in which it decides whether a country of origin is deportable or not deportable. In one swoop, basically, the government decided that Cote d’Ivoire was deportable, and so all the Cote d’Ivoire refugees were deported, or asylum seekers, rather. In 2012, famously, the government of Israel decided the South Sudan was a safe country, and deported 1,200 people who came from a place that didn’t even exist yet, because South Sudan is a new country. They were deported to South Sudan and famously many of them died, because South Sudan is, as we now know, in the middle of a civil war, and is not safe.
Eritrea and Sudan are the last two countries Israel has not yet decided are safe and deportable. That’s why we’re now seeing what’s happening through a system of all kinds of mechanisms, political, physical, and legal, getting those last refugees out of the country. In that way, Israel is now finishing the process of removing all the asylum seekers out of Israel.
SHARMINI PERIES: Lia, where does this put Israel in terms of its international obligations to protect refugees?
LIA TARACHANSKY: Israel, and Jewish people in general, have been the main pushers for the 1951 Convention on the Rights of Refugees, of course because at that time we were dealing with a lot of refugees who were Jewish as a result of the Holocaust. However, after signing the International Convention on the Rights of Refugees, Israel has never respected the rights of refugees. In fact, Israel itself as a country was created at a time and led to the displacement of two-thirds of the Palestinian people, creating the biggest refugee problem in the entire world, as well as the longest lasting refugee problem, to this day, two-thirds of the Palestinian people being refugees as a result of the fact that Israel does not recognize their right to return, again violating the International Convention on the Rights of Refugees.
What we’re seeing right now when it comes to Sudanese and Eritrean refugees is actually the state of Israel implementing the exact same policies and practices that it used to implement against Palestinian refugees, the exact same legal tools in order to get these refugees out of the country.
SHARMINI PERIES: Lia, how are the refugees from Eritrea and Sudan different from other groups that are there in Israel? When you go to Israel, you see a lot of workers from different parts of the world that are there. Do they have a different set of rights protecting them? I realize they’re not refugees or asylum seekers. They’re there to work, perhaps on work permits, but is there a different system by which they are treated that could be adopted and applied to these refugees?
LIA TARACHANSKY: Because Israel is an ethnocracy, it has a tiered system of rights that are dependent not on the territory but on the individual’s identity. For example, if you violate the law in Israel, and you are a Jewish Israeli citizen, it doesn’t matter if you violate the law in the West Bank, where Israel officially is not a sovereign, at least officially, whether you violate the law in Tel Aviv, or you violate the law anywhere else, because the law is applicable to you as a Jewish citizen of Israel, because of who you are. The law in Israel applies based on the actual ethnicity, the blood of the person. If you are a Jewish citizen of Israel, you are at the top of the tier.
If you are a non-Jewish citizen of Israel, such as for example 20% of the population who are Palestinian citizens, you have slightly less rights and you are discriminated against in the very language of at least 30 different laws, but you are essentially a citizen and treated as such. Then we have the Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, who are not citizens, and then of course the millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that are living under Israeli martial law, and then below them, there’s the migrant workers that Israel imports primarily from Asian countries, and below them are the African asylum seekers.
Because we have this tiered legal system of rights, each of the groups on that, depending on their tier, has access to one or to some rights or some privileges. The African refugees don’t have access to any. When they arrived in Israel, which is something that doesn’t happen anymore because Israel built a giant wall on the border with Egypt, essentially cutting off the continent of Africa from Asia for the first time in history, so no refugees enter the state of Israel anymore, but the ones that did were basically dumped in the poorest neighborhoods in Israel, and that’s it. There’s no shelters. There’s no refugee asylum process. There’s no help. They were forbidden from working.
What ended up happening was that most of the African refugees were working illegally or under the table, to the point where much of the Israeli metropolitan service industry became dependent on undocumented workers, primarily African refugees, to cook the food in restaurants, to clean the streets, and so on. Even the city of Tel Aviv, for example, was employing African undocumented refugees. That process led to the fact that they were the most vulnerable population in Israel. As a result, when the government decided to get rid of all of the asylum seekers in the country, it was able to do so relatively easy.
One of the first things that they did is they built the biggest jail for refugees in the developed world. This is the jail called Holot, which we document extensively in the film. What the government basically did is that it built a giant camp in the middle of the desert, and then went around and assembled the majority of the refugees, or all the refugees that it could, and it shoved them into this open-air prison, basically saying, “It’s not really a prison. It’s a camp.” This is where the refugees were languishing for years, imprisoned against their will with no release date. The only option for them to leave that open-air prison was to essentially agree to be deported to Rwanda, Uganda, or Kenya, one of three countries with which Israel reached an agreement that they will take Israel’s Sudanese and Eritrean refugees in exchange for all kinds of benefits such as an arms agreement that was reached back then.
SHARMINI PERIES: Even if that is the case, it is quite obvious that Israel is in need of workers. They need people to work in their restaurant industry, as you have stated, and of course in the agriculture sector, and in the construction sector, and so forth. Why isn’t Israeli authorities giving them work permits and allowing them to Israel without deporting them?
LIA TARACHANSKY: Israel has a number of pools of people that it can pull from to fill the positions that the African refugees will be leaving as they are being deported, or rather self-deported. For example, tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees in the West Bank come into the territory of Israel and work in the Israeli economy. They are also unprotected. A lot of them are undocumented. Because the Israeli occupation has collapsed a lot of the Palestinian economy, they need those positions as well.
What we’re seeing right now is that in fact Israel has created a process in which it’s going to remove the remaining 40,000 asylum seekers at a time when it’s actually importing a quarter of a million migrant workers, largely from Asia, and allowing the flow of Palestinian workers from the West Bank even when that flow is undocumented or, as Israel says, illegal. For example, Israel claims that the segregation wall that it built on the borders between the Palestinian and Israeli territories in the West Bank is providing security, but we know that tens of thousands of Palestinian West Bankers come into Israel, some of them undocumented, to work in the Israeli labor market. We know that Israel is importing 250,000 migrant workers from Asia in a revolving door policy. Basically they come, they work for a few years, and then they get deported back to where they came from.
The African refugees which are currently being deported are part of that labor force, but because there is an access to an almost endless stream of people who are looking for jobs, even low-paying jobs, even insecure jobs, even dangerous jobs, it’s not worried that the positions that these African refugees are going to be leaving behind are going to be empty.
SHARMINI PERIES: Lia, you clearly stated in this interview that this kind of refugee deportation, asylum seekers deportations, having been going on for a very long time in Israel. This is the end of it, really, yet if you look at the international media, they’re focusing on it now. Why is this happening?
LIA TARACHANSKY: I think that what’s important to understand is we’re now at the very end of a process in which the government of Israel is trying to become the developed world’s first zero-refugee nation. It’s using its own ethnocratic mechanisms to do that.
The second thing that I think is incredibly important to understand here is that the way in which Israel is trying to rid itself of all of its asylum seekers is through basic, capitalistic arms trade agreements. Because of the success of Palestinian solidarity movements in the West, essentially, the government of Israel and its minister of economy have been turning to Africa and Asia to try and get countries on those continents to create new trade agreements with the state of Israel.
On one of the delegations, the prime minister went with the minister of defense to three countries, Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda, back in 2009, 2012, and essentially created the framework through which we’re now seeing that these human beings, these asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan are being sold to third states in exchange for arms, in exchange for various technologies, because those countries, Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya, are now launching their very own security state policies, and are needing Israeli arms and homeland security technologies to do so.
The people who are caught in the middle of African refugees, who have zero rights in Israel, who have no process to safety. What we know from previous populations that Israel has deported, such as the asylum seekers from South Sudan, from Cote d’Ivoire, and from Nigeria, these people end up back on the road, and they end up on the precarious journey to safety trying to get to Europe.
SHARMINI PERIES: Lia, I understand that an urgent appeal has been made to the Israeli High Court. What are the chances of that succeeding?
LIA TARACHANSKY: It has probably a good chance of succeeding, but that’s not the point. The Supreme Court has repeatedly, four times in fact, said that holding refugees indefinitely imprisoned is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has been clear on the issue of refugees every step of the way, and when it’s convenient, the government has ignored its decisions, and when it’s not convenient … I’m sorry. When it’s inconvenient, the government ignored its decisions, and when it is convenient, it said, “Now we have these democratic institutions, and we should follow their directives.”
In fact, the problem that we ended up in now is partially as a result of the Supreme Court. Yes, the Supreme Court for the fourth time ruled that the open-air prison where refugees were being held is unconstitutional, but it also ruled that the so-called voluntary deportation, or rather giving refugees a few thousand dollars to be deported to Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya, is constitutional. Of course, according to the international standards on basic rights of refugees, it’s not.
In fact, if you look across the world in developed nations, the level of recognition of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees goes upwards of 80%. In the entire history of the state of Israel, less than 200 people got refugee status. That’s only because of political situation here and there. For example, the majority of them were people that came from Vietnam that got a blanket refugee status during the rule of Menachem Begin. When it’s convenient, the government of Israel can respect democratic basic principles, and when it’s not, it doesn’t.
What we’re seeing right now is actually partially the fault of the Supreme Court, because it’s a supreme court in a country that is still an ethnocratic country, which means that it’s got a different set of laws applying to different populations based on their ethnicity. Because the African refugees are not Jewish, they don’t have access to basic processes of permanent residency or citizenship.
SHARMINI PERIES: Lia, I thank you so much for joining us today. This has been a very enlightening discussion. Thank you so much.
LIA TARACHANSKY: Thanks for having me.
SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.