Diplomats, social workers petition against mass deportation
Social workers and former ambassadors join in the struggle against the planned mass expulsion of asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea to Rwanda; Immigration Authority official says asylum requests submitted after January 1 will not be processed.
Thirty-five former diplomats who served Israel abroad, as well as 1,350 social workers, signed petitions against the looming deportation of tens of thousands of refugees from Israel to Rwanda.
The petitions were sent last week to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Welfare and Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and other ministers and members of Knesset.
The 35 former ambassadors and consuls-general wrote that as delegates who, over the years, "fought for Israel's image among the nations of the world," they cannot "sit on the sidelines" while their country plans a mass forced expulsion.
"As the official representatives of the State of Israel, we have always been able to proudly note, even in the most difficult times of criticism from outside and at home, that 'the State of Israel is founded on the principles of freedom, justice and peace,' as the Declaration of Independence states," they added.
"Even when accusations of the lowest kind were leveled against us and the state, we raised our heads and pointed out that despite the many challenges in Israel, the Basic Laws guarantee that 'every person is entitled to the preservation of his life, body and dignity.' Every person, regardless of nationality, including the refugees living amongst us."
The diplomats stressed that the planned deportation hurts this argument immeasurably, as well as "the image of Israel as a state of law and morality."
"Our parents and grandparents experienced being refugees in the 20th century, whether as victims fleeing from the terror of the Nazis whose entry was refused by a number of countries, or as citizens expelled from the Arab and Islamic countries following the establishment of the State of Israel.
"The situation of refugees and asylum seekers living amongst us is not alien to us. These refugees have fled wars, persecution, dark regimes and starvation.
"We must not expel them into the unknown and even to their deaths. We call for an immediate halt to the deportation proceedings and for a speedy, reliable and thorough investigation of the status of anyone who wishes to be recognized as a refugee under the international conventions to which Israel is a signatory."
Meanwhile, the petition sent to the government by many of Israel's social workers noted that "many of them are survivors of the torture camps in Sinai," and asserted that expelling them is "not a solution."
"As social workers, we are committed to protecting people at risk, to work for equality and social justice at the individual and community levels, and to prevent discrimination against any person or group based on race, color, sex and national origin," they wrote, urging the government to stop the expulsion and "find fair solutions to the issue."
The signatories also addressed the claim that the expulsion of asylum seekers will aid residents of south Tel Aviv, claiming that their distress "is a product of prolonged neglect by the authorities, discrimination in the distribution of resources and the lack of adequate infrastructure, institutions and proper facilities for the betterment of their quality of life.
"The concentration of asylum seekers in the south of the city weighs heavily on its veteran residents and creates the false impression there is war on resources. We must put an end to the direction of oppressed populations to fight each other, and instead take care of everyone's welfare.
The social workers noted they know that "complex social issues do not have simple solutions," though added that they nevertheless "believe that solutions can be found that will benefit both the veteran Israelis and the refugees who arrived here."
'A campaign of disinformation'
Yossi Edelstein, the head of the Enforcement and Foreign Affairs Administration in the Population and Immigration Authority, warned Sunday that any illegal resident from Sudan or Eritrea who failed to file a request for asylum by the beginning of January will no longer be able to file one.
Edelstein also insisted that the new deportation policy does not discriminate between illegal residents from Africa and those who came from Europe.
"We announced clearly that we are offering everyone to leave voluntarily, and anyone who does not comply with our request will be arrested," he said, adding that children and their parents are excluded from the planned expulsion at this stage.
"We explicitly stated that anyone who submitted an asylum application by January 1, his application will be examined before being offered to leave the State of Israel," he stressed. "His request will be processed and he will not be deported until his application is examined."
He added that those who did manage to file a request for asylum would face deportation.
Asylum seekers and foreign workers are forced to spend several nights in front of the offices of the Immigration and Population Authority in south Tel Aviv only to try to enter the building, but most of them fail to submit a request as required due to the overload.
"These infiltrators have been in Israel for almost ten years, so if someone wanted to apply for asylum, he had enough time to do so," Edelstein insisted. "It cannot be that today, after we announced this plan, everyone will run and file a request for asylum and we will stop the whole process."
He noted that there are those the state found to be "persecuted on the individual level," noting that "there are 11 such Eritreans here—all of whom received the status of a temporary resident."
According to the Immigration Authority, there are 130,000 illegal residents living in Israel, 37,000 of which are from Africa.
"We are taking enforcement action against all illegal residents, and in 2015 we removed 5,500 illegal aliens who came from all over the world to the country," Edelstein noted. "To this day, we have not forcefully deported anyone from Sudan or Eritrea. All of them left of their own volition. Therefore, all these allegations of racism are baseless."
Edelstein then expressed his concern over the recent vandalism at the Population and Immigration Authority, claiming that there has been "a campaign of disinformation" against the authority over the issue, calling it a result of "wild incitement."
"I'm definitely worried about my employees, that someone might hurt them, because (Saturday) we saw something we were not used to," he said. "We do our work and if someone has reservations, he has to turn to the legislator, not to the worker on the ground."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke at the opening of the weekly Security Cabinet meeting on the subject, justifying the planned deportation and noting its legality.
"International law and the High Court's decision allow us to remove illegal immigrants outside the State of Israel," Netanyahu said. "The target country to which we are deporting is one of the safest countries in Africa and the UN has determined that."
Amir Alon, Alexandra Lukash, Nir Cohen and Itamar Eichner contributed to this report.