Immigration

The Anne Frank-inspired plan to 'hide' African migrants in Israel

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Rabbi Susan Silverman – the sister of US comedian Sarah Silverman – is leading the charge.

A group of rabbis in Israel is planning an Anne Frank-inspired scheme to shelter some of the 38,000 African migrants currently facing deportation or jail in the country.

The Israeli government announced earlier this month that migrants had who entered the country illegally – specifically citing those from Eritrea and Sudan – will be offered a plane ticket and $US3,500 ($AU4,388) if they leave by March, or face arrest.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was unequivocal in his remarks after a cabinet meeting on the program. "We have expelled about 20,000 and now the mission is to get the rest out," he said.

We have expelled about 20,000 and now the mission is to get the rest out.
- Benjamin Netanyahu

Eritrean migrants protest at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem.
Eritrean migrants protest at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem.
AP

But the recent announcement has been met with criticism and protest around the country – including from some religious leaders. 

Rabbi Susan Silverman – the sister of US comedian Sarah Silverman – told SBS News from Israel that she had been following Mr Netanyahu's recent policy moves towards the African migrant community with "growing horror."

Israeli police arrest Rabbi Susan Silverman (second from left) at women's rights protest in 2013.
Israeli police arrest Rabbi Susan Silverman (second from left) at women's rights protest in 2013.
AFP

Rabbi Silverman claimed rather than abide by international conventions and moral obligations, the current administration was determined to do as much as possible "just to get rid of these people".

A statement from the county's Population and Immigration Authority detailing the announcement called on "infiltrators from Sudan and Eritrea to voluntary leave Israel to their country or to a third country".

Details of the third countries have not been released. Israeli media is reporting that they are likely Sub-Saharan African countries, with Rwanda and Uganda as the likeliest possibilities.

Although Olivier Nduhungirehe from the Rwandan Ministry of Foreign Affairs has tweeted that "Rwanda will NEVER receive any African migrant who is deported against his/her will ... Any manipulation of women, men and children in distress is appalling."

Rabbi Silverman said she feared that "once they get to these third countries, they're back on the refugee trail. Then they're vulnerable to trafficking and to death."

The Anne Frank Home Sanctuary

Rabbi Silverman's concerns prompted her to make an unconventional suggestion at a recent meeting of the Rabbis for Human Rights organisation – that they open their homes to those at risk.

"All 200 rabbis in the audience raised their hand that they would all do it and raised their hands again when I said 'who would encourage their communities to do it?'"

And so the 'Anne Frank Home Sanctuary' movement was created.

Some 38,000 African migrants have until the end of March to leave Israel.
Some 38,000 African migrants have until the end of March to leave Israel.
EPA

Rabbi Silverman said the name was not only inspired by the Jewish teenager's story but also by one specific asylum seeker who escaped from Eritrea to a refugee camp in Ethiopia.

"There they had this makeshift library, and in that library they had The Diary of Anne Frank. He read it … and he cried and cried. He left the refugee camp in Ethiopia, headed for Israel, went through hell, but the whole way heading to Israel, saying to himself, 'the people of Anne Frank' will protect me."

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"With our 70th anniversary of the state coming up, we can either have it marred by being like every country was to us over the centuries and sending people away to their deaths, or we can say no, we're going to do this differently."

Rabbi Silverman told SBS News since announcing the movement she had received "many calls" from rabbis and the wider Israeli community willing to open their houses.

Israel's immigration 'dilemma'

Israel's Ambassador to Australia Mark Sofer told SBS News the country finds itself in an "extremely difficult" situation.

Mr Sofer said Israel had the unique immigration challenges of being "the only western country or developed country with a land border with Africa" and an absence of any regional mechanism for dealing with the issue.

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"The vast majority of them are in fact economic migrants. In other words, they've entered the country illegally looking for jobs."

"(Israel) is trying to find the best way possible to allow those who will be leaving to stand on their own two feet," citing the financial offer to "help set themselves up".

Mr Sofer said there will be several exemptions to the order including children and the elderly.

"Every country in the world has the right to stop an illegal influx of migrants … But how do you exercise that ... And cause as little human hardship as you possibly can? This is dilemma we are in and the dilemma that much of developed world is in."

Protesters gathered at the Rwanda Embassy in Israel on January 22.
Protesters gathered at the Rwanda Embassy in Israel on January 22.
AFP

Protests have also been held on the streets of Israel, with local newspaper Haaretz reporting that thousands of asylum seekers protested deportation outside the Rwandan Embassy on Monday.

One Eritrean asylum seeker quoted by Haaretz said: "It's shameful, it's terrible ... Why doesn’t (Israel) give us the things it's obliged to (as) it's a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention?"

And activists have taken their fight online. One campaign started by NGO Zizim Community Action is calling on the public to contact pilots and implore that they refuse to fly migrants to any dangerous African country.

"This is a test for the Israeli public to determine the fate of tens of thousands of people," the organisation's CEO Raluca Gena said.

The move to deport the migrants has also attracted criticism from more familiar groups – including the United Nations.

A public statement from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) urged Mr Netanyahu to dump the program, saying it was not "coherent" and "has been implemented not in a very transparent manner."

Israel is planning to deport some 38,000 African migrants.
Israel is planning to deport the migrants.
AFP

Speaking from UNHCR Israel headquarters, spokesperson Sharon Harel said in all likelihood these individuals will "not find the proper protections" in the third countries and be forced to "continue en route to destinations where they face severe risks including death".

Ms Harel also highlighted Israel's "very poor record" of welcoming refugees. Of the more than 13,000 asylum applications submitted since 2013, only 11 had been approved by Israel's Interior Ministry.

In 2012, Israeli politician Miri Regev referred to African migrants as "a cancer".

The 'North Korea of Africa'

Ms Harel said for many of the 38,000 individuals now facing deportation, returning home was simply not an option. She described Eritrea – where an estimated 73 percent of African migrants in Israel are from – as the "North Korea of Africa".

It was a point echoed by Meron Estefanos of the Eritrean Initiative on Refugee Rights.

"There is no freedom of religion, there is no freedom of movement, everybody has to have permission to be seen anywhere. Especially a young person … Anything you can say can land you in prison."

"It's important to remember that about 10,000 Eritreans [in Israel] are victims of torture and victims of human trafficking … That should be enough to give them refugee status."

 

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