Israeli plan to offload Eritreans: An affront to international law

Israel’s supposed plan to send tens of thousands of Eritrean asylum seekers to an unspecified African country raises enormous humanitarian, human rights and political concerns.

The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees recognizes that:

…the grant of asylum may place unduly heavy burdens on certain countries, and that a satisfactory solution of a problem of which the United Nations has recognized the international scope and nature cannot therefore be achieved without international co-operation…

This is another way of saying that countries bordering conflict zones – often poor and unstable themselves – tend to endure the primary burden of protecting refugees. (Kenya, for example, is presently home to more than half a million refugees.) The resulting concept of “burden sharing” has since become a critical principle of international refugee law.

It is widely accepted that resettlement is meant to function as a mechanism for burden sharing – not, as in what Israel proposes, for rich countries to offload onto poor ones.

Moreover, the resettlement of refugees must ensure the receiving country will go far to actively protect the rights of those being resettled and refrain at all costs from deporting them. From UNHCR:

The status provided by the resettlement State ensures protection against refoulement and provides a resettled refugee and his/her family or dependants with access to civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights similar to those enjoyed by nationals. Resettlement also carries with it the opportunity to eventually become a naturalized citizen of the resettlement country.

As for Israel’s stated expectation that it will reject 100 percent of asylum applications filed by Eritreans: I’m curious to know how it will square that with the rest of the world’s recognition that Eritreans are likely to face torture or execution upon deportation home, rendering many of them eligible for refugee status. The same article to which I linked above notes that 74 percent of Eritrean asylum seekers worldwide were recognized as refugees in 2011.

Let’s hope Israel is bluffing. (At the end of this Haaretz report, Or Kashti provides a helpful roundup of all the other times the state has made bogus claims about paying a country to take its refugee population.) But the intention itself is disturbing. We know that Israeli policy is often driven by its demographic interests, which take precedence over human rights and other universal principles. This plan, however, would constitute a particularly egregious declaration that Israel exempts itself from the obligations that come with being a member of the world.

Myths, facts and suggestions: Asylum seekers in Israel