By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
In recent weeks a growing list of people in Israel and abroad have expressed shame and outrage over the country’s plan to deport tens of thousands of African asylum-seekers and migrants. Now the UNHCR is reported to be in discussions with Israel to resettle some of the asylum-seekers in third countries, including in the West. This is an important and proactive development after many years of government unwillingness to address the issue and arbitrary and capricious laws.
Since 2010 I’ve been writing about asylum-seekers in Israel and the terrible suffering they faced coming to the country. Over the years I’ve suggested that the best way to work through the issue would be to ask the asylum seekers what they want. Many of them didn’t set out to come to Israel. They were trafficked and tortured and dumped on Israel’s doorstep in Sinai. As Yossi Klein Halevi writes on February 7, many of those deported over the last years immediately set out for Europe again and ended up in the hell of slavery in Libya.
So for those who really want to help asylum seekers, why has so little proactive and common sense approaches been put forward. The general discussion ends up being between two views. First are those who argue Israel should accept refugees because Israel was founded as a nation of refugees. They argue that Israel betrays its values and Jewish values by sending the people back. Many of these voices don’t provide a long term plan for how to absorb the people. Some proposed sending them to work in construction, even though the asylum seekers may not want to be sent to work in construction. Some seem to propose keeping them in limbo forever, so that they remain in “asylum” in Israel sometimes cynically so Israel will look good abroad. But refugees don’t want to be in limbo. Jewish refugees didn’t want that when they left for the West. They wanted citizenship and equality. They didn’t want to be sent to work in the fields as cheap labor. So why would African asylum seekers want that. Unfortunately Israel segregated the migrants into their own schools in Tel Aviv and has created a racist policy towards them.
On the other side are those, estimated at two-thirds of Israelis, who support deporting them. These voices call them “infiltrators” and believe they should be sent somewhere else. These voices don’t really care where the asylum seekers are sent, so long as they go.
The problem is that there are more solutions to this issue than are being proposed. How could you satisfy both agendas? Here’s a plan that would work.
First of all you can do the right thing for the migrants and refugees while also satisfying the government’s desire. Thousands of asylum seekers sought to move from Israel to Canada and many were able to move there and start a new life. Many of the asylum seekers also have relatives in other countries, some of whom are in Europe.
Mobilize the diaspora
The plan to help the asylum seekers should involve mobilizing the diaspora to support the refugees. At just one gala for an NGO supporting Israel more than $53 million was raised last year. Why not have the diaspora mobilize for a gala to support aiding Israel in its needs regarding the migrants.
The US community raised $58 million in one night, it can do it for this cause too
That means partnering with the Israeli government and foreign governments to help re-settle them. There are influential members of the diaspora in Europe, Canada and the US. Tens of thousands of the asylum seekers might like to re-settle in Europe, the US or Canada.
Re-settlement option in western countries
Using a unique lobby to encourage western states to help take in some of the people could mean aiding Israel and aiding the asylum seekers. No one would be forced to go, but they could have that option. Western countries provide asylum to people from Eritrea and Darfur and the diaspora experts, including those who are already experts in migrations such as HIAS, can help process the applications for asylum. Western states have already tried to outsource these kinds of applications to take place abroad so as to slow undocumented migration to Europe. They will want to work with Israel and its friends to aid legitimate asylum seekers to apply and move to western states that agree to take them. As an enticement there could be a fully funded special program to help them re-settle and integrate. If they choose to move, Israel and the diaspora can help them find the life and future they want.
Choice of community
At the same time the diaspora would help put up the cost to fund the integration of the thousands who wish to remain. There are only 40,000 or so and most might choose to leave. If 10,000 chose to stay their needs could easily be met by the a combination of Israel’s planning and the diaspora. For instance some of the people might like to settle as family units in a community. Israel could provide the choice to create a community for people from Eritrea or Darfur. Israel has experience absorbing people from many backgrounds. It could help these people easily. At the same time there could be a fast-track for citizenship for them. This would end the burden of having the poor asylum seekers living in one of the poorest areas of Tel Aviv.
Integration, not segregation
At the same time Israel should work to integrate the thousands who remain. They should be sent to de-segregated schools. Israel’s history of segregation in education and in communities with “acceptance committees” is a disgusting legacy and there is no better time than now to open up communities for people of all colors and backgrounds. Many of the most liberal and left-leaning Israelis claim they want to help asylum seekers.
So it’s time to open up the communities where people live in kibbutzim and other areas to diversity. Among the diversity will be the asylum seekers. Again, this will not involve any force, but choice, the one thing that the refugees have not been given over the years. Instead of a virtue-signalling neo-colonial mentality deciding to send them to “directing them to work in construction” the refugees will have choice. The millions of dollars from the diaspora will also fund educational initiatives for the refugees.
This is a plan that would work. The UNHCR has begun to explore part of it. It’s time for Israel’s government and the diaspora to step forward as well.