Africans in Israel worry deportation plan could be a death warrant

Israel is offering nearly 40,000 Africans living in the country a choice: be sent to a detention facility, or be deported to an African country with a plane ticket and a cheque. As correspondent Derek Stoffel reports, some Israelis say the plan goes against Jewish values.

Israeli residents of South Tel Aviv say migrants have made their neighbourhood unsafe

Men and women from Eritrea and Sudan held a silent protest earlier this month outside the Rwandan embassy to Israel in Herzliya. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Muluebrhan Mesgna walked out of an Israeli immigration office near Tel Aviv clutching a white piece of paper that he worries is his death warrant.

"I feel that [Israel is] killing me — to deport me to Uganda or Rwanda is no less than killing me," said the 30-year-old Eritrean, who has lived in Israel since 2011.

Mesgna is one of hundreds of men from Eritrea and Sudan who have been handed notices giving them a stark choice. They can leave Israel voluntarily, along with a cheque for $4,400 and a plane ticket to an undisclosed country in Africa, or be locked up.

The deportations of 37,000 African migrants, who the government views as "illegal infiltrators," are expected to begin in March.

The state's plans have drawn harsh criticism from Holocaust survivors and sparked demonstrations, with immigration and human rights advocates saying the expulsions are not the Jewish way.

Muluebrhan Mesgna, standing outside an Israeli immigration office, holds a document that says he has 60 days to leave Israel or face imprisonment. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Mesgna's journey

Muluebrhan Mesgna was born in Tserona, a city in southern Eritrea.

According to Human Rights Watch, the unelected president of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, leads "one of the world's most oppressive governments."

After finishing his university degree in veterinary sciences, the then-22-year-old Mesgna was worried the country's mandatory military service, which is viewed as indefinite conscription, meant his "future was narrowing out."

Leaving his mother and father behind, Mesgna went in 2010 to Sudan.

Two years later, he made his way by car and on foot across Egypt and the dangerous Sinai Desert, paying about $4,000 to a shadowy group of men who facilitated the journey.

Mesgna said five people in his group of about 70 perished during the two-month journey, dying of thirst, hunger or cruel treatment at the hands of local Bedouin tribes.

When he arrived in Israel, Mesgna was taken to a temporary immigration facility. A month later he went to Tel Aviv, where he found a place to live and a job.

Meaza Haile, Muluebrhan Mesgna's wife, pours Eritrean coffee at their home in the Tel Aviv suburb of Petah Tikva. Mesgna says it was important to bring his traditions, such as this elaborate ritual, with him to Israel. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

He continues to work six or seven days a week in the kitchen of a restaurant in the city's well-known Sarona Market.

"We were saved," Mesgna said from the tiny one-room apartment in the Tel Aviv suburb of Petah Tikva that he shares with his Eritrean wife, Meaza. "For six years, I can say that I've been protected here in Israel."

But he worries that protection is quickly running out.

'Illegal infiltrators'

Some 60,000 African migrants — most of them Eritrean and Sudanese — have crossed into Israel from Egypt's Sinai Desert since 2005.

While a United Nations examination of Eritrea in 2016 found "widespread and systematic" crimes against humanity, and thousands of Sudanese from the Darfur region have fled to Israel, only 11 Eritreans and Sudanese have received asylum, Israel's Ministry of Interior told CBC News in an email.​

"We are acting against illegal migrants who come here not as refugees, but for work needs," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "Israel will continue to offer asylum for genuine refugees, and will remove illegal migrants from its midst."

60,000 African migrants have come to Israel since 2005. Some have been detained at the Holot facility in the southern Negev desert near the Egyptian border. (AFP/Getty Images)

Israeli officials have not declared where the migrants will be deported to, although the government acknowledges it's too dangerous to return Sudanese and Eritreans home.

Aid groups have named Uganda and Rwanda, but the Ugandan government denied it is a destination.

A neighbourhood transformed

You'll find some of the fiercest opposition to the presence of the Africans in Israel when you walk through the streets of South Tel Aviv, where Israeli residents say the neighbourhood has been transformed into a slum.

The area is the home to the largest concentration of Africans living in Israel.

Migrants from several African countries make up more than half of the population in one neighbourhood of south Tel Aviv, according to the group South Tel Aviv Against the Deportations. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

"I didn't grow up thinking that I would be afraid to go out of my house, and feel I will be raped or murdered," said May Golan, the CEO of Hebrew City, an organization campaigning against illegal immigration.

Residents of South Tel Aviv say their neighbourhood has seen a spike in crime, but the latest statistics from Israeli police show the number of burglaries in the area dropped 32 per cent in 2017, compared to 2015. In the same period, assaults fell 39 per cent, while drug offences increased by nearly a quarter. 

Meanwhile, a police survey quoted by the Israeli news site Mida found that 62 per cent of Israelis living in South Tel Aviv were too afraid to leave their homes at night. 

But a community organization known as South Tel Against the Deportations maintains those fears are overblown.

"It's a small neighbourhood," group coordinator Inbal Ezoz told CBC News. "There are too many people living there, and those who came from other countries don't have much, so there are tensions. But it's not as dangerous as some residents say."

Golan is steadfast in her opposition to the "illegal infiltrators," accusing them of "taking your identity … taking the core of your being as a rightful citizen in your country and just tearing it from you," by trying to "change the Jewish demographic in Israel."

May Golan was born in south Tel Aviv and is fighting to rid the area of 'illegal infiltrators.' (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

She has met with top Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to ensure the deportations go ahead. While some pro-African advocates say the effort clearly has racial overtones, Golan calls that "nonsense."

"I don't care what colour they are. They can be pink. They can be yellow. They can be white. They can be black," she told CBC News.

"I care about the fact that people who don't belong to this country came here illegally and are changing every possible criteria of our lives in a violent, very brutal way."

Calls to halt the deportations

Countries around the world — including Canada, the United States and European nations — are struggling to deal with global migration. Israel is the latest state grappling with how to protect its security and borders, while also showing compassion to those less well off.

The pending deportation of thousands of people has struck a chord in Israel, as the Jewish state was created as a safe haven for Jews fleeing persecution.

Asylum seekers and their Israeli supporters vow to keep protesting the government's plans, ahead of the start of the deportations in March. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Dozens of Holocaust survivors sent a letter to Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month, urging him to reconsider.

"The State of Israel, under your rule, has set itself a goal of reminding the world of the lessons of the Holocaust," the survivors wrote. "Therefore we ask you: Stop the process! Only you have the ability to make a historic decision and show the world that the Jewish state will not allow the suffering and torture of people under its protection."

Israelis and African migrants have voiced similar messages at a number of rallies held in support of the asylum seekers. A demonstration outside of the Rwandan Embassy in the city of Herzliya earlier this month attracted thousands of protestors.

"I think this is against our tradition and against our history as Jews, who for centuries tried to escape from different places," said renowned Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan, who added that several members of his family perished at the hands of the Nazis.

"Now we are doing this, against our culture."

Dani Karavan, a renowned Israeli sculptor, called the deportation plan 'terrible' at a recent demonstration in support of the asylum seekers. (Ellen Krosney/CBC)

Canada offers refugee protection

Israel completed a steel fence along its southern border with Egypt in 2013, which has largely stopped the influx of Africans.

Of those who made it to Israel, a number have already moved on to other countries. About 20,000 have left in recent years, with many finding Canada a more hospitable host.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada told CBC News that 1,880 Eritreans living in Israel were given refugee protection in Canada beginning in 2016, mostly under private sponsorship programs.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, which represents Jewish groups in Canada, is urging Ottawa to sponsor African refugees in Israel, so there is "minimal dislocation and hardship for asylum seekers."

Muluebrhan Mesgna binds his arms together, a symbol adopted by African asylum seekers in Israel, at a protest against the government's plans that could see him deported. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Muluebrhan Mesgna said he would jump at the chance to relocate from Israel to a safe third country, including Canada.

He added that if he can't go to a country considered a safe haven, he will not take up the Israeli offer for cash and a plane ticket to an African destination, because he worries that eventually he'd be forced back home to Eritrea.

"I prefer to stay here and go to prison," he said moments after receiving his deportation notice. "I have to be here, where I will be protected."


Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.