'It is better to go to jail': the African migrants being forced from Israel
Outside a detention centre deep in Israel’s Negev desert, a small group of African asylum seekers are sitting at a weathered picnic table, hugging themselves in the cold winter sun.
The three men, all Eritreans, are faced with a catch-22. Like some 40,000 other African people, largely from Sudan and Eritrea, they have been told that if their application for asylum fails, they must with a lump cash sum or face imprisonment.
And like many who are afraid to return to their country of origin, they say they will choose jail rather than leave.
The UN has called on to scrap its new programme forcing thousands of African migrants out of the country, condemning it as incoherent and unsafe. That scheme has led to thousands of people being offered $3,500 (£2,590) and a plane ticket if they leave the country by March, with a warning they may face arrest after that deadline.
In a sign that moves to begin the deportations are imminent, Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority is advertising for inspectors to enforce the expulsions, and is offering generous bonuses for applicants.
However, conversations with people who are potentially facing deportation suggest many may choose jail, rather than return to their home countries or travel to a third country like Uganda or Rwanda, which has an agreement with Israel to receive the migrants in exchange for $5,000 per person.
Levelling accusations of racism at the Israeli government, which they say has singled them out for the colour of their skin, the Eritrean men describe an often confounding set of rules and regulations designed to push them from the country.
Among those facing potential removal from Israel are Tomas Yohnass and Filmon Belay, both Eritreans, whom the Guardian met outside Holot detention centre, not far from the Egyptian border.
Although the men had been living and working in Israel for several years, they were sent to Holot under retroactively applied rules requiring men aged 18-60 to spend 12 months at a detention centre. Those rules also bar them from returning to the largest African communities in Tel Aviv and Eilat, where many find work and accommodation.
Yohnass, who was a student in Eritrea when he fled army service, is among many who say they would prefer to be jailed than deported, even with the offer of a cash incentive. “People say it is better going to jail than going to a third country. The government of Rwanda does not protect refugees and most of those who agreed to go there have left,” he says.
Although the threat of deportation is suspended for those who have applied for refugee status, Yohnass is not optimistic about the outcome of his application. “Most of the applications have been rejected.”
Indeed, the rejection of Belay’s own application two weeks ago, citing the same reason for seeking asylum, suggests Yohnass’s application will also be turned down.
“I had an interview two weeks ago and got the same letter as others have received,” explains Belay. “It said fleeing the [Eritrean] army is not a special case, so I can’t be registered as an asylum seeker or refugee. Now I have 14 days to reapply with a different reason if I want to try again.
“All I can say is that the pressure is affecting my mental health. I don’t want money. But I am afraid to return to Eritrea or Rwanda. I am asking for my life. That’s all I can write.”
“It’s strange that they treat refugees like this,” adds Yohnass. “Israel is a country built on refugees. They know what happened to them. I don’t know how they can do this to people in the same situation. I think it is because of my colour.”
Some rightwing campaigners in areas such as south Tel Aviv, where many Eritrean and Sudanese people have settled in recent years, have described the issue in controversial language. One of the most prominent has been Sheffi Paz, who invited the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to visit her earlier this year when he vowed to deal with the issue.
After that high-profile meeting, Paz told the Guardian: “We have people talking about drinking, violence, harassment. We really don’t want them here. I don’t think this country can accommodate them. This country has too many tribes and minorities of its own.”
this week, however, the reporter and commentator Daniel Eisenbud – himself a resident of south Tel Aviv – questions whether the influx of African migrants has truly worsened social conditions. Instead, he suggests they were cynically placed in a neighbourhood that was already one of the country’s most rundown.
“I see these men, women and children every single day. I have interviewed dozens of them in depth and heard their stories – about the rapes of their mothers, sisters and daughters, the murders of their family members and friends, the hopelessness and fear. If these people don’t qualify as refugees, then who does?”
It is a debate that has become increasingly heated.
On Tuesday evening, scuffles occurred in Tel Aviv between some 200 activists defending the migrants and around 50 supporters of the government’s plan, who chanted “Deportation or prison” and “Neither a refugee or a victim, only an invader and infiltrator”.
While Israel claims the vast majority of the African people who arrived did so for economic reasons, critics say that by seeking to deport them to third-party countries, the government has tacitly recognised it is too dangerous to return them to Sudan and Eritrea.
The UN has also criticised the countries involved for a lack of transparency, with Uganda publicly denying it has agreed to take the migrants and Rwanda contradicting evidence collected by the UN and an Israeli NGO showing that some people have already been deported there.
According to officials for the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency has spoken to 80 people who were flown with their $3,500 to Rwanda before heading north, travelling to Rome through conflict zones in South Sudan, Sudan and Libya.
“Along the way they suffered abuse, torture and extortion before risking their lives once again by crossing the Mediterranean to Italy,” the UNHCR said in a statement, explaining that its staff interviewed the migrants in Rome.
But despite appeals by NGOs, activists and even the UN, Netanyahu’s rightwing coalition appears determined to push ahead with its plan.
“The amount of people is so small,” says the artist Yigal Shtayim, who set up a soup kitchen to help African migrants when they first began arriving in the country, and has continued to campaign on their behalf. “Let’s be Jewish and human and treat them right, and show we can treat people OK.”