After fleeing from one of the most oppressive regimes in the world, Eritrean refugee Dawit Demoz lived in limbo in Israel for seven years on a temporary permit that he had to renew every two months.
While he could not be forcibly removed from the country, he said he and other refugees from Eritrea and Sudan were also not allowed to seek asylum in Israel, where they end up after a gruelling journey through Libya and Egypt.
Even after the policy changed in 2013 and he was given an asylum interview by Israeli officials, his case remained undecided in 2016 when he was resettled in Toronto under a private sponsorship after meeting a Canadian doing humanitarian work in Israel.
With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government set to deport some 38,000 African migrants and refugees in Israel, GTA Jewish community groups are concerned for the safety of the deportees like Demoz.
“By sending them back to Africa, they are going to put these people’s lives at risk,” said Demoz, who says that he fled the Eritrean regime after refusing to serve as an informant to flush out anti-government opposition. He now studies psychology at York University
According to the Jerusalem Post, the Netanyahu government will carry out the mass deportations to an unspecified third country as early as March.
In Israel, critics of the policy, including Holocaust survivors, have staged protests against the government’s move. In the GTA and around the world, Jewish religious leaders have signed an open letter urging the Netanyahu government to live up to Israel’s international responsibilities and stop the deportations.
“There are a lot of things going on in the grassroots. The Israeli government’s policy doesn’t reflect its people,” said Rabbi Lawrence Englander of the New Israel Fund of Canada, which supports NGOs in Israel that safeguard civil and human rights.
“In our own Jewish history, we have been refugees so many times. Given all these experiences as a people, Jews have to help non-Jews from these measures of the government.”
The New Israel Fund is among a group of Jewish community organizations in Greater Toronto that has launched a petition this week, to urge the Netanyahu government to rescind the plan and the Canadian government to open its doors to some of those refugees through private sponsorships.
“We believe it is contrary to Jewish law, Jewish ethics, Jewish memory, and our own history of being a people without a homeland before the creation of Israel,” they said in a joint letter.
“We are further disturbed by numerous reports that have shown that asylum-seekers who have thus far ‘self-deported’ from Israel to Rwanda and Uganda have not found safety and protection in those countries, but have again found themselves without status, forced to begin their refugee journey anew.”
However, Netanyahu has argued that the Africans are not refugees but economic migrants looking for work opportunities.
“We are not taking action against refugees,” he told the Times of Israel. “We are taking action against illegal immigrants who come here for work purposes. Israel will continue to be a shelter for true refugees and will eject illegal infiltrators.”
Rabbi Yael Splansky of the Holy Blossom Temple, an officer with the Toronto Board of Rabbis, said many of the African asylum-seekers have successfully woven themselves into the fabric of Israeli life.
“Israeli citizens are protesting Netanyahu’s decision to deport. Rabbis are offering to hide people in their homes. Pilots are refusing to fly the deportees to Rwanda and Uganda,” said Splansky. “There must be a way to recast a plan that is consistent with Israel’s values as a Jewish and democratic state.”
Enbal Singer, a founder of Canadians Helping Asylum Seekers in Israel, said the groups are appealing to Ottawa to resettle some of the refugees in Israel and offer guidance to the Netanyahu government in integrating the refugees.
“We need to do what we can to bring some of these most vulnerable asylum-seekers to Canada and ask Israel to give status to those who are still there,” said Singer, a University of Toronto law student.