About two weeks ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the surprising and welcome announcement that Israel had reached an agreement with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) on the issue of the African asylum seekers. And, just as surprisingly, he announced a few hours later that the plan was suspended, and within a day, canceled.
According to a statement from Prime Minister’s Office, a number of Western countries agreed to take in about half of the 37,000 asylum seekers in Israel, in exchange for Israel permitting the other half to remain in the country. Additionally, the prime minister announced that south Tel Aviv, a neighborhood where the largest number of asylum seekers reside, would receive significant funding toward fixing up dilapidated parts of the neighborhood.
The announcement was welcomed by the Anti-Defamation League and many others as a positive development following years of uncertainty and disappointment about the status of the asylum seekers. Over the years, ADL has called for a humane and responsible solution to this issue. As an American Jewish organization, one of ADL’s greatest concerns is the well-being and security of Israel; we want to see it prosper and overcome all of the challenges its precarious location imposes on it.
Yet ADL also cares about our shared Jewish values and refugee heritage – a very human concern that reaches across borders and distances – and unifies us as a people. We fully recognize that for years Israelis have been grappling with this difficult challenge and many saw this agreement as a path forward in providing an appropriate resolution for the asylum seekers while also alleviating the very real burdens facing the residents of south Tel Aviv.
Prior to the announcement, the Israeli government had planned, as per a policy announced in January, to deport thousands of asylum seekers, either through persuasion or force, to an unnamed African country, reportedly Rwanda.
Many groups and individuals had called on the Israeli government to shelve the plan in favor of a more humane and responsible approach.
Under international law, Israel is obligated to investigate refugee claims and grant asylum to individuals deemed to be in need of international protection. Objections to the Israeli plan stemmed in part from reports of prior deportees encountering violence and inhumane living conditions in the African countries they sought refuge in. Testimonies indicate that they did not find durable protection there and risked their lives by taking dangerous onward journeys through conflict zones in South Sudan, Sudan and Libya to seek protection elsewhere.
Some have drowned at sea en route to Europe, while others were reportedly detained, tortured and extorted by human traffickers. The UNHCR plan, as laid out by the prime minister, accounted for those issues and was a reasonable solution to a very difficult challenge.
Prime Minister Netanyahu deserves credit for negotiating a strong agreement, and for his early leadership on this issue, including the 2009 government decision to build a fence on Israel’s southern border, which helped stem the tide of entries into Israel.
While there are legitimate Israeli concerns about the challenges of absorbing thousands of asylum seekers and questions about the precedent-setting nature of the agreement, Israel is a secure and financially prosperous country capable of absorbing a few thousand refugees. Unfortunately, Netanyahu’s wholesale cancellation of the deal, ostensibly in response to objections from members of the his coalition government who were unhappy that not all asylum seekers would be deported, leaves the matter unresolved and festering.
The prime minister’s actions are greatly troubling. The UNHCR deal represented the most reasonable and realistic solution offered to date toward resolving a crisis that has been ongoing for over a decade. By agreeing to accept a number of asylum seekers seeking refugee status and ensuring that those deported are sent to countries where their safety would be guaranteed, the deal spoke to Israel’s desire to find a humane and ethical solution to this difficult issue. Most importantly, it would have finally resolved years of uncertainty and tensions over the future for tens of thousands of men, women and children, many of whom had already suffered unspeakable horrors on their treacherous journey across Africa to Israel.
Reports now indicate the Israeli government is in talks with other African nations to get them to accept large numbers of asylum seekers.
This raises the same safety concerns as the initial Israeli plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.
Following World War II, Israel proudly played a leading role in the creation of the United Nations Refugee Convention, which established the international framework for the protection of refugees around the world. As Jews, we have a set of values that implores us to help the stranger and provide refugee to those being persecuted. Indeed, just about two weeks ago, millions of Jews around the world read from the portion of the Haggada which reminds us that we too were once strangers in the land of Egypt. This is a very human concern rooted in our tradition and history that unifies us as a people.
It is not too late for Netanyahu to take responsible and moral action by standing by the UNHCR plan. Doing so would be good for Israel, improve the lives of south Tel Aviv residents and serve as an act of humane compassion toward tens of thousands of asylum seekers.