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February 4, 2018 7:02 pm

As Israel Issues Deportation Notices for African Migrants, Concern for Their Uncertain Fate Abounds

avatar by Ben Cohen

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Interview

An African migrant in South Tel Aviv. Photo: Courtesy “For You Were Once Strangers” (dir. Ruth Berdah-Canet, 2015.)

The furor inside Israel over the fate of nearly 40,000 migrants from African countries presently concentrated in South Tel Aviv deepened on Sunday, as immigration authorities began distributing deportation notices clarifying that any migrant who leaves voluntarily within 60 days will receive $3,500 and a plane ticket to an unnamed African country.

The deportation notices were handed out to asylum seekers who arrived at the offices of Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority on Sunday to renew their residency permits. The notices emphasized that the unnamed third country destination, widely believed to be Rwanda or Uganda, had “stable government,” an expanding economy, and had already absorbed thousands of returning migrants.

But the reassurance did little to dampen criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government from domestic opponents of its deportation policy. Some international Jewish groups have joined the criticism in recent weeks, pointing out the life-threatening circumstances that many past deportees from Israel have confronted after leaving Tel Aviv.

Ruth Berdah-Canet – a French-Jewish filmmaker who directed the award-winning documentary “For You Were Once Strangers,” in which she intimately observed the lives in Israel of a group of asylum seekers from South Sudan in 2012 – said that some of the subjects of her film were among those who had faced violence and uncertainty after deportation from Israel.

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On arrival back in South Sudan, carrying a cash payment from the Israeli government along with vital supplies, like medicines, purchased in Israel, several deportees were set upon by robbers who were awaiting them outside the airport, Berdah-Canet said.

As Berdah-Canet noted, the six months she spent making her film coincided with an early, if equally torrid, political debate in Israel about migrant communities that at the time had swelled to more than 60,000.

“There’s something unique about this issue in Israel, because it cuts across society,” she observed in an interview with The Algemeiner this week. “On other issues, like the IDF or the peace process, there are predictable divides between left and right, between religious and non-religious, between young and old – but go to a demonstration against the deportations, and it’s not uncommon to see an orthodox rabbi alongside left-wing activists.”

Berdah-Canet believes that a deeper, historical memory of desperate Jewish dependence on the good intentions of strangers is what brings many Israelis together on the deportation issue, who would otherwise be bitterly opposed on other questions. At the same time, she was under few illusions that a significant part of Israeli society – a full 56 percent, according to a poll issued by Israel’s Channel 10 on Sunday – wants to see the migrants gone.

“The debate is basically about how we reconcile our Jewish ethics and religion with the security of the state, when you are dealing with immigration challenges that are real,” Berdah-Canet said. As the only democratic country in the world that shares a physical border with Africa, she noted, Israel has for more than a decade been a magnet for those fleeing religious and ethnic persecution in countries like Sudan and Eritrea – sometimes described as the “North Korea” of Africa. Nearly 500,000 of Eritrea’s total population of 5 million have become refugees from a regime that persecutes its own citizens with torture, rape, executions and targeted killings, according to a recent UN report.

“In ’06, ’07, ’08, the IDF started to see these people crossing from the Sinai,” she recalled. “Some of them had missing organs, some of them had amputated limbs, many were starving – and the IDF cared for these people, they gave them food and medical attention. One of the mothers’ from South Sudan in my film talked about what it was like for her child to receive meat and yoghurt from the IDF after so long in the wilderness.”

But as the trickle of migrants built up into a steady stream, the gritty streets of South Tel Aviv – where the migrants were “dumped,”  Berdah-Canet said – became the focal point of tensions with local Israelis struggling to make ends meet. As in similar big cities around the world where migrants congregate, Berdah-Canet said, seeing such tensions proved to her that “Israel is a normal country.”

“A part of honestly loving a country means that you have to appraise its faults and change the issues you care about,” Berdah-Canet said, as she explained why she became so attached to the plight of the migrants and how, in the process, “my Zionism reached a new point.”

“Look, in Israel you can hear the same kind of vulgar racism that you hear from idiots everywhere,” she observed. “But Israel was created as a home for the Jewish people, so our generation has a responsibility to two groups – those who gave their lives to make Israel a reality, but also those, like these new refugees, whose present reality is so harsh.”

Recognizing that the Israeli government appears serious in its intention to deport the migrants, Berdah-Canet expressed hope that the most vulnerable among them – like families with children, and those fleeing persecution – would be spared deportation. She also highlighted various initiatives by Israelis to assist the refugees even after they are deported, such as a school in Uganda financed by Israeli donors that caters to around 40 Hebrew-speaking children who spent their early years together in South Tel Aviv’s public schools. And there are, Berdah-Canet added, some occasionally happy outcomes, for example the South Sudanese asylum seeker who first appeared in her film, and is now studying at the well-regarded Inter-Disciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliyah.

Reflecting on the day-to-day dilemmas faced by a filmmaker who is living with her subjects as she charts their struggles, Berdah-Canet said it was sometimes impossible to remain a silent observer during her six months in South Tel Aviv. When the asylum seekers whom she tracked lost their jobs prior to deportation, the director helped out with money for groceries and other household items.

It was not something she had expected to do, Berdah-Canet continued, but it became her responsibility as the asylum-seekers lost one option after another in their fight to legally avoid expulsion from Israel. Over the next 60 says, as deportation notices multiply, many other Israelis will likely feel similarly obliged.

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