An Israeli man shouts racist slogans at a group of Sudanese refugees from the Darfur region as they arrive at a cultural center in southern Tel Aviv on February 15, 2013. (Marco Longari / AFP / Getty Images)
Haaretz reported on Tuesday that Israel deported at least 1,000 Sudanese refugees to North Sudan via a third county, without informing the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and despite the fact that â€œ[Sudan] has vowed to punish any of its citizens who ever set foot in Israelâ€:
Though Israel claims the peopleâ€™s return was voluntary, this claim was rejected by UNHCR, which says there is no â€œfree will from inside a prison.â€
Under a recent amendment to Israelâ€™s infiltration law, asylum seekers can be jailed for years without trial. Testimony from within prisons indicates that detainees were also denied access to UNHCR, in violation of the UN convention on the status of refugees, which Israel has signed.
â€¦Michael Bavli, UNHCRâ€™s representative in Israel, warned the Population, Immigration and Border Authority that â€œdeporting Sudanese to Sudan would be the gravest violation possible of the convention that Israel has signed – a crime never before committed.â€ [emphasis mine]
The U.N. refugee convention holds that even if an immigrant was not a refugee when he or she immigrated, he or she becomes such if being repatriated constitutes a threat to life and limb. As Haaretz notes, this understanding of international law has been upheld by Israelâ€™s Supreme Court. Former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak wrote in one verdict that:
This is the great principle of non-refoulement, under which a person cannot be deported to a place where his life or liberty would be in danger. This principle is enshrined in Article 33 of the refugee convention.â€¦ It applies in Israel to every governmental authority that deals with deporting someone from Israel.
Many of the Sudanese who fled to Israel did so from Darfur, where American Jewish social activists have been deeply involved in the struggle against the Sudanese governmentâ€™s genocidal policies; the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant against President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes and genocide in Darfur. Refugees coming from other parts of Sudan have also been subjected to brutal attack by the Sudanese government – including aerial bombing, the destruction of entire villages and mass arrests of hundreds of thousands of people – in an effort to suppress what the government terms rebellions.
Israelâ€™s decision to send defenseless human beings back to this reality is disturbingly of a piece with the treatment it has long afforded African refugees: As mentioned above illegal immigrants may be detained for years without trial; the legal status of refugees has been manipulated so that they may not legally seek work; Minister of the Interior Eli Yishai and other coalition members have incited racial violence against the refugees; the police have distorted crime statistics; and in one horrific case, a group of 21 refugees was literally left to starve on the border before three were imprisoned and the rest forced to return to the Sinai, where human traffickersroutinely torture and rape whoever falls in their hands.
This story has gone largely under-covered by the American press (though not, as some have suggested, entirely unreported, with the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post all publishing articles just in the past year, to name three outlets), and I have some thoughts as to why: the story doesnâ€™t fit into the usual Israeli-Arab conflict tropes; the American press continues to face enormous financial struggles and has been slashing foreign coverage for years; the world is a huge place with major disasters and human tragedies playing out every day; and finally, while the African refugees in Israel number in the tens of thousands, there are frankly much bigger refugee stories out there, with much less complicated narratives. These are not excuses, they are only possible explanations, and the fact is: the information is out there, should we care to look for it.
But mostly, American and Israeli Jews have not cared to look for itâ€”and if we have, weâ€™ve supported the Israeli government in what can only be described as shocking and unconscionable actions. We can agree that a country has a right to protect its borders and spend its budget on its own citizens, without agreeing to this. Virtually every Jewish family alive today has a story burned into its collective memory of pogroms, ethnic discrimination, official scapegoating, privation, starvation, rape, and murder.