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Israeli President endorses deportation plans for refugees, but protests grow

African asylum seekers protest in Tel Aviv, Israel, on January 7, 2014. Rwanda continues to deny deal with Israel to take in African migrants who have been ordered to leave the country or face imprisonment.
AFP
A refugee spoke about his heart-felt connection to Israel in one of many initiatives in Tel Aviv

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin voiced support towards a controversial plan whereby about 40.000 African asylum seekers will be forced to leave Israel.

Speaking at a conference of Israeli Ambassadors and diplomats at large, Rivlin argued Israel has a duty to take care of its own “poor” before extending an helping hand to others.

“For quite a few years now we have been faced with a moral dilemma, but it’s time to say frankly that the needy among our people come before the poor of another,” said Rivlin.

“We have a duty towards every refugee, but we must take care of our people first,” he reiterated.

Rivlin then delved into personal memories recalling how right-wing Prime Minister Menachem Begin decided to accept hundreds of refugees from Vietnam during the war in the 1970s.

“I was a student when Begin allowed 360 Vietnamese refugees to come to Israel,” he said.

The government’s plan to deport thousands of vulnerable asylum-seekers to Rwanda has triggered a uproar of criticism from Israeli civil society at large.

“The craziest aspect of this plan is that migrants are not even being deported to their home-country, but to a third country they have no connection to,” said Yaron, head of an Ulpan language school in Tel Aviv and an anti-deportations campaigner.

“It’s as if I was deported from Europe and officers told me I would be deported to Syria instead of Israel, as if the whole of the Middle East, or Africa for that matter, were one single monolithic entity”.

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Yaron launched an event at his Ulpan where Ristom, a refugee from Eritrea who risks involvement in the deportation plans in the next few months, was given an opportunity to recount his story.

“I was drafted into the Eritrean army and served there for three years,” recounted Ristom. “But in my country army service seems to never end: I tried to go back to my studies but was denied permission a number of times.”

Eventually, Ristom decided to escape prolonged exploitation in the army by leaving the country, but was caught and jailed at the border with Sudan.

“They kept me for three months in an underground jail in the middle of the desert,” he said describing his detention at the border between Sudan and Eritrea. “There was no light, food would be thrown at us through the bars, you only see things like that in movies.”

Ristom, who speaks Hebrew after eight years spent in Israel and says he feels at home here, was then moved from jail to jail until he managed to escape and reach his house with the help of his brother. When he tried to leave the country again, he succeeded in illegally penetrating Sudan and then made it to Israel through the Sinai.

“The Sinai part of the journey is deadly tough, the bedouins mistreat you and blackmail you,” he recounts.

Once in Israel Ristom progressively integrated, learned the language and found a girlfriend here. During his talk with his very classmates at the language school in Tel-Aviv, he emphasized “ani lo irgashti palit”, I never felt like a refugee here.”

“I feel like Israel is my home now,” he added, highlighting how, like many other migrants who risk deportation, he has no connection to Rwanda, the country he would be sent to.

African asylum seekers who entered Israel did so before 2013, when a fence at the border with Egypt made the journey impossible.

Ristom, who is here since eight years, risks jailing and deportation if his two months work permit does not get renewed.

The initiative at Ulpan Bayt in Tel Aviv, where he was given an opportunity to describe his situation to fellow Hebrew students, is just one of many initiatives against the deportations currently being organized in Israel.

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