Published on February 7th in The Jerusalem Post under the title THOUSANDS OF AFRICAN MIGRANTS PROTEST DEPORTATION AT RWANDAN EMBASSY IN ISRAEL
Three days after the Israeli government sent out 20,000 deportation notices, thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees gathered in front of the Rwandan Embassy in Herzliya to protest their expulsion and condemn Rwanda for reportedly accepting money for their exile.
Although Rwandan Ambassador Olivier Nduhungirehe has denied ongoing reports that his government made a secret deal with Israel to accept deported migrants at $5,000 per person, the arrangement is widely believed to be a foregone conclusion.
Amid chants of “We are refugees – we are not criminals!” and “Rwanda: Shame on you!” the protesters expressed fear of being forced to leave Israel to a country known for its autocratic regime and human-rights violations.
“Don’t sell me to Rwanda,” pleaded Simon Gooka, 23, who came to Israel from South Sudan in 2012. “Please give us the honor of not calling us criminals. We are refugees who came to Israel for protection.”
Holding a sign reading “Deportation kills,” Emmanuel Hopta, 30, who came to Israel from Eritrea in 2011, expressed shock at the government’s tough stance.
“I came here because Israel signed the 1951 Geneva Convention for refugees and I thought they would protect me,” he said. “Instead they sent me to Holot [open detention center] for a year, and now are forcing me to leave to a dangerous place. I was told the Jews and Israelis were the most humane people on earth. Why are they rejecting those who need their help?”
Israeli, Nimrod Avigal, 35, asked the same question.
Avigal, who is the deputy director of American refugee advocacy organization HIAS, held a sign reading: “My people were refugees too,” and “Welcome the stranger, protect the refugee #JewsForRefugees.”
“Many of these people have been in Israel for up to 10 years without any rights, and the government has neglected to look at their stories to see that they are refugees and grant them the protective status they deserve,” he lamented. “Now, they are trying to deport them and pay money to a third country in Africa, which is not their home.”
Avigal cited fear of change, and ignorance, for the demonization of the 38,000 migrants. “It’s safe to say that many Israelis are afraid of changing the environment in Israel, and most people know so little about the community that is cleaning our streets and washing our dishes in restaurants – just trying to live safe lives for themselves and their children.”
As she raised a sign reading, “Deportation of refugees = corruption,” Noa Bentov expressed shock that the government has turned its back on those in need.
“I came here because I think it is immoral to deport these people,” she said. “Israel can find the solution for them in Israel because we are speaking about 38,000 people among eight million.”
Bentov added that because the Interior Ministry sent tens of thousands of asylum-seekers to already impoverished south Tel Aviv, instead of spreading them throughout the country, it has exacerbated the problem.
“They sent them to a bad neighborhood and the residents are suffering there for sure because almost all of them [African migrants] are there,” she said. “The solution is to place them in other areas because they can work, and want to work, and it’s no problem to absorb them.”
TAKLEAB GHIRMAY, 26, who came to Israel from Eritrea in 2010, said he has heard dozens of horror stories about African refugees who were sent to Rwanda and not given any rights, fleeced of the $3,500 the Israeli government paid them to leave, and forced to find safety elsewhere.
“I would rather go to prison in Israel than be sent to Rwanda,” said Ghirmay. “I will be safer in prison.”
American citizen Joey Low, 66, who invests in Israeli hi-tech companies and has provided dozens of scholarships to Africans attending college at IDC Herzliya, came to the protest from New York City with his wife, motherin- law and daughter to denounce the deportation.
“I came to the rally today because I am very supportive of the African community here in Israel and I’m very upset about the deportation plan...and will do everything in my power to stop it,” Low said. “I have worked with this community for the last eight years, and this is a community that can enrich Israel, and it’s a shame that while deporting them they want to bring in new workers from the Philippines and Thailand when we have willing worker already here.”
Moreover, Low explained that it would be politically wise for Israel to absorb the refugees and show the world that it is indeed a humane country.
“After absorbing them, Israel can send a lot of the Africans abroad to help defeat BDS by explaining how Israel welcomed them, gave them an education, and made them a part of society,” he said.
Low added that the government’s dehumanization campaign – which refers to African refugees as “criminals,” “economic opportunists” and “infiltrators” – reflects Germany’s dehumanization of Jews during the Holocaust.
“This is a very horrible phenomenon,” he said. “If we look back in Germany at what happened to my parents, they were demeaned by being called Jews and having to wear Stars of David, and the whole process was done to dehumanize them so that when they did bad things to them no one thought they deserved better.”
Low continued: “It’s the same thing by calling these people infiltrators, criminals and migrant workers – it’s all done to make society here in Israel believe they are the enemy, when in fact, if you get to know them, they are a very calm, peaceful people who just want to work. In fact, most of them do work, and if given the chance they could contribute to Israeli society.”
Meanwhile, he said that if the government deports or incarcerates asylum-seekers, it will do irreparable harm to its standing in the world by fueling anti-Israel sentiment.
“There’s no doubt that this will do major damage to Israel as a country with a deep moral conviction about right and wrong,” he said.
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