On Tuesday an international human rights group accused Israel of using coercive and unlawful methods to detain and expel thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese migrants. In its report entitled “Make Their Lives Miserable,” Human Rights Watch claims that nearly 7,000 Eritrean and Sudanese nationals have been forced to return to their native countries, where they face possible imprisonment and torture.
Israel hosts approximately 60,000 African migrants, primarily from Sudan and Eritrea, and has long grappled with how to handle the influx. Most migrants have a murky legal status; several thousand are held in temporary detention centers. Recent government solutions include the construction of a 140-mile-long wall along the Egyptian border to keep migrants from entering via the Sinai Peninsula, rumored deals with third party African nations to accept the migrants, and a so-called voluntary repatriation plan, namely for refugees from Sudan and South Sudan. (In reality, asylum seekers were offered financial incentives to leave and threatened with arrest if they stayed.)
Rights groups argue that such measures run counter to international conventions as many of the refugees face possible harm if they return home. For example, Sudan, which is technically at war with Israel, has outlawed travel to the Jewish state; Eritreans face possible jail time for evading compulsory military service. According to Human Rights Watch’s Van Esveld, “We think this constitutes effective ‘refoulement,’ which is a refugee law term that means you’re being basically forced back to a country where you face a well-founded fear of some kind of persecution.” In Tuesday’s report, the human rights watchdog cites Israel’s 99.9% rejection rate of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum claims, as well as obstacles to legal employment and restrictions on healthcare.
Yet despite the hazy legality of Israeli policy, the expulsion and/or detention of Africa migrants retains significant support within the conservative government. (The title of the Human Rights Watch report released Tuesday borrows from a comment made by former Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai). Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu maintains that the African nationals are not refugees, but illegal economic migrants and “infiltrators” – an argument that skirts around the question of international asylum laws. Public pressure and the desire to maintain Israel’s Jewish identity are additional factors behind the prime minister’s tough stance. In 2012 and 2013, violent protests against migrant communities spurred the Israeli government to launch a string of deportation raids.
It looks like such tactics have worked, at least to stem the flow of refugees into the country. But while rights groups have repeatedly called for Israel to change its detention policies, there hasn’t been commensurate international pressure to do so. Amid continuing tensions in Gaza, not to mention the outcry over Israel’s recently announced plan to seize 1,000 acres of Palestinian-claimed land, the migrant issue will no doubt remain on the back burner. Meaning the legal status of Israel’s African migrants will only get murkier.