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January 16, 2018 1:58 pm

US Jewish Groups Urge Israeli Government to Scrap African Migrant Deportation Plan

avatar by Ben Cohen

A demonstrator holds an Israeli flag at a protest organized by African migrants outside Israel’s Supreme Court in Jerusalem in January 2017. Photo: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun.

Two prominent American Jewish groups urged the Israeli government on Tuesday to abandon a controversial plan to deport African migrants and asylum-seekers.

In a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) charged that the “sweeping nature of this deportation scheme, coupled with the extreme difficulty to access the Israeli asylum system is having a devastating impact on the refugee community in Israel and betrays the core values that we, as Jews, share.”

“Our involvement in this issue is guided both by our unwavering commitment to the well-being and security of Israel, as well as by our Jewish values and heritage as refugees,” the letter — signed by ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt and HIAS President Mark Hetfield — stated.

There are just over 38,000 African migrants in Israel, most of whom arrived from war-torn countries like Eritrea and South Sudan between 2006 and 2012. Under the “Assisted Voluntary Return” program announced by the Israeli government last week, migrants who depart Israel voluntarily receive a plane ticket to their country of origin or a third country, along with a lump sum of $3,500. Those migrants who do not take up this scheme by April, however, could face compulsory deportation.

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The letter to Netanyahu highlighted reports from migrants who found themselves in life-threatening circumstances after leaving Israel.

“Testimonies of people who were relocated by Israel to third countries in Africa 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,” the letter said. “Some have drowned at sea en route to Europe, while others were reportedly detained, tortured and extorted by human traffickers.”

The ADL and HIAS leaders ended by telling Netanyahu, “We would welcome any opportunity to discuss these issues with you.”

The issue of African migrants has become an increasingly vexed one for Israel in recent years, with a growing public chorus demanding that the government deport the migrants, many of whom live in overcrowded, dilapidated buildings in south Tel Aviv.

Ruth Berdah-Canet — a French-Jewish filmmaker who produced the award-winning 2015 documentary about Israel’s African migrants, “For You Were Once Strangers” — told The Algemeiner on Tuesday that Israeli society had been deeply challenged by an unprecedented wave of migration involving undocumented persons, many of whom were fleeing persecution.

“It’s a question that transcends the normal divisions in Israeli society – religious and secular, left and right, older and younger,” Berdah-Canet said.

The filmmaker noted she had been “struck” by how little the debate in Israel over the African migrant issue had changed over the last five years. “There is a lot of emphasis on semantics,” Berdah-Canet said. “Some people call them ‘asylum seekers,’ some call them ‘refugees,’ some say ‘migrant workers,’ some say ‘illegal immigrants.'”

Berdah-Canet argued that there was a “critical problem” with the “outdated” laws and conventions that Israel has invoked in dealing with the migrants, adding that new legislation was needed that accounted for the circumstances in which the migrants left, or fled from, their homes.

“There is no specific law to handle these people,” she said. “This is where all the torment comes from.”

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