Ilan Lior, Haaretz, January 7, 2013
As a strike by tens of thousands of African asylum seekers against Israel’s migration policies entered its third day on Tuesday, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar announced that dozens of Eritrean asylum seekers had left Israel voluntarily in recent weeks for Sweden.
The announcement did not specify the number of those who had left for Sweden. The majority were apparently women, many of whom had been victims of torture and human trafficking and who had been imprisoned in Israel for a long time.
Sweden agreed to take them in response to a special request by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and to include them in a resettlement plan, due to their special circumstances.
Tens of thousands of migrants stayed away from work Tuesday, as the strike went into its third day. Many of them gathered at Levinsky Park, in south Tel Aviv, to discuss their future action. Among the moves considered were marching toward Jerusalem, Saharonim prison and the Holot detention center in the Negev.
The Interior Ministry said the migrants left for Sweden in the context of a government incentive scheme and were granted $3,500 each upon departure. They are encouraged to leave Israel voluntarily and to promise not to return.
An attorney dealing with residence and migration issues criticized Sa’ar’s announcement. “Asylum seekers who were sent to Sweden did not leave as part of the Ministry’s voluntary departure process, but as part of the efforts of the UNHCR to resettle people who qualify as refugees,” said Oded Feller, who heads the division dealing with residence status and migration in the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
“It’s not clear what the Interior Ministry take pride in. Sweden only resettles people with refugee status who are not afforded adequate protection in countries they find themselves in. The fact that Sweden took in 50 refugees proves yet again that Israel is the only country that doesn’t recognize Eritrean asylum seekers as refugees, and that other countries feel that Israel is not fulfilling its obligations under the Refugee Convention,” Feller said.
The ministry spokesman said that in 2013, 2,612 migrants from Africa left Israel as part of this voluntary departure process. Of those, 1,955 were from Eritrea and Sudan.
On Monday, more than 10,000 African migrants demonstrated in front of the American embassy near the Tel Aviv promenade. Thousands more gathered in front of the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the European Commission, as the embassies of Ethiopia, Great Britain, France, Canada, Sweden, Germany and Italy.
They called on the international community to exert pressure on the Israeli government to changes its asylum seeker policies, and recognize them as refugees. In addition, the protesters called on the government to stop arresting them and to release those who are imprisoned.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that, despite the events of the past two days, he is still committed to expelling the migrants. “I’d like to make clear that protests and strikes won’t help,” Netanyahu said during a Likud faction meeting. “As we were able to stem the illegal infiltration of our borders, we are steadfast in our commitment to evict those who entered before we closed the border . . . We aren’t talking about refugees with whom we deal according to international treaties; we are discussing illegal migrant workers, who will be brought to justice.”