Irwin Cotler urges Israel to reverse its policy on African migrants

Irwin Cotler

Israel should halt its plan to deport or imprison thousands of African migrants who are currently living in the country, says human rights activist and former justice minister Irwin Cotler.

In a strongly worded condemnation of how the Israeli government has handled the issue, Cotler said that the law adopted by the Knesset in December is not worthy of a state that calls itself Jewish and democratic.

In an article in the Times of Israel, Cotler called on the Jewish state to repeal or suspend the anti-infiltration law, which he describes as a violation of international law and basic human rights, including the International Refugee Convention, to which Israel is a signatory.

Cotler is the founder and chair of the Montreal-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.


There are nearly 40,000 African migrants in Israel today, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan. Some arrived as early as 2005. Deporting these migrants to third countries, widely presumed to be Rwanda and Uganda, is also not acceptable, he says, because the secretive agreements Israel signed with these countries offers no guarantee of the deportees’ safety. Deportations are due to begin in March.

Cotler condemned the official and “ongoing campaign of incitement against, and defamation of,” Africans in Israel, especially those who were forced to settle in impoverished south Tel Aviv.

He wants Israel to establish a proper refugee status determination process, so that asylum seekers can make claims and receive a fair hearing in a timely fashion.

Until refugee determination is made, claimant should be able to work unfettered in Israel, Cotler argues.

African asylum seekers are loaded onto a bus headed for the Holot detention centre, in Israel in 2014. (Rudychaimg/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Cotler is well acquainted with the brutal regimes these migrants fled. He chaired the All-Party Save Darfur Parliamentary Coalition, which was formed in 2003, in an attempt to prevent what he says became a genocide that was perpetrated by the Sudanese regime.

Israeli political leaders, he charges, have been stigmatizing and scapegoating the migrants as a security and demographic threat, in an effort to make them want to leave the country, rather than evaluate their claims according to law.

Only 10 asylum seekers have received refugee status, and only after a long court battle. Just making a claim is exceedingly difficult, Cotler says, with fewer than 15,000 managing to do so.

Israel has the lowest acceptance rate of Eritreans in the Western world, Cotler pointed out. Canada, in comparison, gave refugee status to 97 per cent of claimants from that country.

Cotler suggests that Israel take up the offer of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to help resettle the migrants. The agency has said that it will facilitate the resettlement of up to 10,000 people in countries where they are guaranteed to be treated with dignity. Cotler says that this includes Canada, where Jewish communities could sponsor refugee families.

Cotler concluded that Israel should develop an immigration policy that’s in keeping with Judaism’s command to “respect the stranger, let alone not persecute them.”