Canada raises 'concerns' over Israel's mass deportation plan for African migrants

Canada is opposed to Israel's plan to deport or imprison thousands of African asylum seekers and has officially registered its concerns.

Liberal government faces pressure to resettle asylum seekers from Eritrea, Sudan now in Israel

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland's office says Canada has raised concerns with Israel over its mass deportation plan. (Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press)

Canada is opposed to Israel's plan to deport or imprison thousands of African asylum seekers and has officially registered its concerns.

A majority of the 37,000 citizens of Sudan and Eritrea living in Israel are being ordered out of the country beginning next month. The Israel government has started distributing notices advising asylum seekers they have 60 days to leave for a "safe" African country with the help of a plane ticket and a few thousand dollars.

If they don't go voluntarily, they face indefinite imprisonment.

"Canada does not support policies of mass deportations of asylum seekers. The rights of asylum seekers and refugees are laid out in the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees, of which Israel is a signatory," said Adam Austen, spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. 

"As the country that resettles the highest number of African asylum-seekers from Israel, we are in direct contact with the Government of Israel to convey Canada's concerns about the situation."

According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), 1,880 Eritrean refugees were resettled to Canada from Israel in in 2016 and 2017, almost all of them through private sponsorship.

The federal government also has a program to resettle Eritrean refugees now in other countries.

'Illegal infiltrators'

While the Israeli government has not publicly named the country or countries to which the migrants would be removed, Rwanda is believed to be a destination country and also possibly, Uganda.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has labelled the asylum-seekers "illegal infiltrators," suggesting they are seeking job opportunities rather than genuine refugee protection.

The wave of Eritrean and Sudanese migrants began in 2006, with people fleeing persecution and violence crossing the border illegally from the Sinai desert to Israel. After Israel built a 242-kilometre electronic fence along the border in 2014, illegal immigration through the Sinai dropped to just 11 cases in 2016 and none in 2017.

Human rights recommendations

The migrant situation has become a flashpoint in Israel. Some citizens blame migrants for rising crime rates and threatening the country's social fabric and Jewish character, while others condemn the mass deportation plan as unethical and racist.

In a UN peer-review human rights report Jan. 23, 2018, Canada said human rights protections in Israel vary based on ethnic or religious groups.

Among Canada's recommendations to improve human rights in the country was to "take measures to ensure an equal and non-discriminatory institutional approach toward all communities in Israel, particularly Israeli-Arabs and African asylum seekers."

Other recommendations included reducing restrictions on freedom of movement to allow better access to health services for Palestinians, and protecting the ability of civil society groups to operate freely in the country.

Irwin Cotler, former Liberal justice minister and internationally renowned human rights leader, is critical of Israel's deportation policy but says there is much misinformation around it. The policy has been amended to exclude women, children, families and disabled persons, which means only single Eritrean men are subject to the deportation order, he said.

Former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler says Israel must establish a fair, effective and comprehensive refugee determination process to deal with thousands of African migrants. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

That order is also before the courts, he added.

Cotler believes Israel should suspend any deportations until a fair, effective and comprehensive refugee status determination process is established.

"Without that it becomes arbitrary, even if those carrying it out believe they are well-intentioned in that they are sending them to a safe third country, providing them with support on the way, and are actually acting in a more favourable way than other countries that are just summarily deporting those they deem to be migrants," Cotler told CBC News.

Of the cases that have been heard in Israel, fewer than one per cent have been accepted as genuine refugees, compared to a rate of about 97 per cent approval of claims in Canada, he said.

Calls for Canada to up intake

Cotler said Canada could help ease the pressure on Israel by taking in more refugees.

"That would be a determination for Canada to make, but I do believe it could increase its intake. It's something it could work out in discussion with the UNHCR and Israeli authorities," he said.

In a recent article for the Times of Israel, Cotler said, by using language such as "infiltrators," Israeli political leaders have engaged in ongoing incitement against asylum seekers that was "designed to stigmatize, criminalize and expel, rather than evaluate and properly determine their status according to law."

Jewish groups in Canada are urging the Liberal government to take steps to resettle more of the deportees in Canada.

Eritrean migrants wear chains to mimic slaves at a demonstration against the Israeli government's policy to forcibly deport African refugees and asylum seekers from Israel to Uganda and Rwanda, outside the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018. Hebrew signs read, 'no for deportation, Rwanda equal to death' and 'slaves for sale.' (Oded Balilty/Associated Press)

Shimon Koffler Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, described the situation as a serious challenge to both Israeli authorities and the asylum seekers.

"We have urged the Israeli government to adopt a maximally compassionate approach, and note that Israel has implemented a policy where families are exempt from the process which means they will stay together in Israel," he said in a statement to CBC News.

"We are hopeful that a variety of additional creative solutions, including one we are focusing on domestically — namely for Canada to sponsor a number of refugees — will result in minimal dislocation and hardship for asylum seekers."

'Hasty and short-sighted'

Enbal Singer, founder of Canadians Helping Asylum Seekers in Israel, is calling on the federal government to remove some of the administrative barriers and take steps to facilitate refugee sponsorship. Her group has launched a lobbying campaign to raise awareness about the issue with MPs.

She believes Israel's plan violates international refugee law and is "hasty and short-sighted."

"Even if you believe that Israel should be a country only for Jews, that should not come at the risk to human lives," she said. 

Enbal urged the government to intervene to stop deportations to ensure safety, and to increase staff at visa offices in Tel Aviv to support the UNHCR in processing claims. 

Dawit Demoz, a 31-year-old Eritrean now living in Canada, made a harrowing journey to Israel in 2009 through the Sinai desert after paying nearly $10,000 to smugglers.

He arrived in Canada as a privately sponsored refugee in 2016, and is now working to help other asylum seekers ordered out of Israel follow his path.

"I think this is a historic mistake, especially from a state that was built by refugees," he said. 


Kathleen Harris

Senior producer, Politics

Kathleen Harris is the senior producer for CBC.ca in the CBC's Parliament Hill bureau.

With files from the CBC's Derek Stoffel


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