Bodies of 34 migrants found on Turkish coast, at least 12 rescued


The bodies of 34 migrants, at least seven of them children, were found at two sites along Turkey's Aegean coast on Tuesday after they apparently tried to cross to the nearby Greek island of Lesbos.

The flow of migrants, mostly fleeing Syria's civil war in search of sanctuary in Europe, has continued despite colder winter weather, though the numbers have dipped somewhat. About one million people are believed to have crossed or attempted to cross the Aegean in 2015, nearly five times more than in 2014.

The people found on Tuesday died after their boat or boats apparently capsized in rough seas. It was not known how many vessels were involved or how many people were on board.

Twenty-four of the bodies were discovered on the shoreline in the district of Ayvalik, the Turkish coast guard command told Reuters. Ten others were found in the nearby district of Dikili, a local gendarmerie official said.

The coast guard and gendarmerie rescued 12 others from the sea and the rocks on the Ayvalik coastline. The coast guard said three boats and a helicopter were searching for more survivors.

“This is a crime against humanity. It is murder to send people out to sea like this,” said the governor of Ayvalik, Namik Kemal Nazli, referring to the traffickers who exploit migrants desperate to reach Europe. 

In comments quoted on the Haberturk website, the governor said 50-60 migrants from Iraq, Syria and Algeria had put to sea in two boats from Dikili.

Haberturk also reported that the dead people at Ayvalik had included two girls and five boys.

Reuters TV footage showed a body in an orange life jacket lying at the grey water's edge in Ayvalik, lapped by waves.

“We heard a boat sank and hit the rocks. I guess these people died when they were trying to swim from the rocks. We came here to help as citizens,” one unnamed eyewitness said.

NO LET-UP 

Increased policing on Turkey's shores and colder weather conditions have not deterred the migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa from embarking on the perilous journey in small, flimsy boats.

“Migrants and refugees continue to enter Greece at a rate of over 2,500 a day from Turkey, which is very close to the average through December,” International Organization for Migration (IOM) spokesman Joel Millman told reporters in Geneva. 

“So we see the migrant flows are continuing through the winter and obviously the fatalities are continuing as well.”

The IOM said 3,771 migrants had died trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe last year, up from 3,279 recorded deaths in 2014.

In a deal struck at the end of November, Turkey promised to help stem the flow of migrants to Europe in return for cash, visas and renewed talks on joining the European Union. 

Turkey is host to 2.2 million Syrians and has spent around $8.5 billion on feeding and housing them since the start of the civil war nearly five years ago. 

But it has faced criticism for lacking a longer term integration strategy to give Syrians a future there. Almost all of the refugees have no legal work status and the majority of children do not go to school.

No easy way out for African migrants in Israeli desert detention


A compound of one-story buildings deep in the southern Israeli desert is now home to some 400 African migrants who face the prospect of being held in custody indefinitely.

The detainees in what the authorities call an “open” detention centre are allowed to leave for a few hours each day, but given its remote location near the Egyptian frontier, travel is impractical.

Israel opened the Holot complex in December after its Supreme Court stopped the practice of jailing illegal migrants for up to three years in regular prisons.

But in what the migrants call a cruel twist and rights groups say is a rights violation, a law passed the same month allows the migrants to be detained indefinitely, pending the resolution of their requests to stay in Israel.

“I went to renew my visa, and suddenly I wound up here. This is terrible,” said Eritrean Hagos Fdwi, 30, who worked in a restaurant in Tel Aviv.

More than 50,000 Africans – mainly Sudanese and Eritreans – have crossed into Israel surreptitiously through a once-porous, and now fenced, Egyptian border in the past eight years.

Many say they seek asylum from war-torn homelands, but Israel dismisses most as illegal job seekers although some have been granted limited visas.

Authorities complain of heightened social tensions in more impoverished parts of Tel Aviv where Africans settle. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the influx threatens Israel's Jewish character and wants the majority of migrants removed.

But rather than conduct outright deportations, Israel is trying to coax migrants to return home voluntarily – including offering a cash incentive – or persuade third countries to accept them.

So far, relatively few have taken the money, though Israeli officials say 2,000 left in 2013, up from a reported 400 or so in 2012. No third-country safe havens have been established.

Daniel Solomon, an Interior Ministry legal adviser, said Holot was established to get migrants off the streets and out of the job market.

“Legally people can be held at the open facility indefinitely, but the idea is for it to be a transit (point) for migrants before they go back home or to a third country,” he told reporters in January.

Journalists have not been permitted to enter the compound, but Reuters was able to interview a dozen or so detainees who ventured outside its gates.

Some said they were bused from Tel Aviv or surrounding areas after visiting the visa office, arriving at the centre with just the clothing on their backs.

Many said they do not take the opportunity to leave the facility each day. The closest town, Beersheba, is about an hour's drive away, and detainees are required to check in every few hours. Failure to do so could mean transfer to a conventional prison.

There were few complaints about accommodations, said to include television and three meals a day, with 10 men sleeping in an amply sized room. No women or children are being held.

FRUSTRATION

Holot has a capacity to hold more than 3,000 inmates and human rights groups say at least 2,000 more migrants have received summonses to report there by next month.

The rights groups argue that many of the migrants are worthy of political asylum, citing unrest and oppression in their homelands, and have petitioned the Supreme Court against the law.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Israel, Walpurga Englbrecht, said unlimited incarceration at Holot did not “comply with international human rights norms.”

“What is more disturbing is there are no release grounds from Holot, the only way to get out is signing up for voluntary departure,” Englbrecht told Reuters.

Anger over the facility has triggered a series of protests by migrants in the past month, including a march to Israel's parliament and crowded vigils in Tel Aviv.

When a Reuters TV crew showed up outside the facility recently, some of the detainees held up signs calling for asylum. Three detainees walking down the road crossed their wrists over their heads as if they were handcuffed.

Detainees spoke to Reuters mainly of boredom and frustration at seeing no quick way out of their predicament. Two said they had been separated from their wives and children, although Israel said it avoids sending men with families to the facility.

Solomon Hagos, 25, said he has been in detention in Israel since he entered illegally 18 months ago. He said he fled an Eritrean military prison in 2012 and was gang-raped over several days by three men who held him captive in Egypt's Sinai desert before he crossed into Israel.

“My life is nothing but a prison,” said Hagos, whose asylum petition was rejected last month.

Robel Yohanns, 23, of Eritrea, was more hopeful than most of the detainees, however.

“I'm just going to sit patiently and wait for them to change the law, again,” he said.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Sonya Hepinstall

Thousands of African migrants protest outside Israeli parliament


More than 10,000 African migrants demonstrated outside Israel's parliament on Wednesday, extending protests into a fourth consecutive day in a quest for recognition as refugees and freedom to work legally without fear of incarceration.

Their presence in a Jewish state that took in survivors of the Nazi Holocaust of World War Two has stoked an emotional political debate over whether they should be allowed to stay as a humane gesture.

“I want to say to them that they should not fear us, we are human beings too,” a tall, slim 25-year-old man from Eritrea, who gave his name only as Mulugieta, told Reuters.

Some 60,000 migrants, largely from Eritrea and Sudan, have entered Israel without authorization across a once-porous border with Egypt since 2006. Many hope for asylum and say they cannot return home without risking their lives.

Israel says most are illegal job-seekers. It passed a law three weeks ago allowing for indefinite detention of migrants without valid visas while it pursues efforts to persuade them to leave or enlist other countries to take them in.

Mulugieta said he fled Eritrea six years ago, fearing that his criticism of its rulers had put him in danger.

“We asked for shelter, we do not deserve jail,” read one of many large banners in a park opposite the Israeli Knesset as the crowd demonstrated against Israel's refusal to grant them refugee status.

“Being black is not a crime,” another sign said.

Many of the migrants live in impoverished neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, Israel's commercial centre, and work as cleaners and dish-washers. They have gone on strike at restaurants as part of a protest campaign that included a large demonstration in the Mediterranean seaside city on Sunday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week he views the African influx – since stemmed by an Israeli fence along the Egyptian frontier – as a threat to Israel's Jewish social fabric.

Miri Regev, a member of Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party, said it was time to send the migrants, whom she dubbed “infiltrators”, away.

“Stop being bleeding-hearts,” Regev said on Israel Radio, referring to Israeli activists seeking to help the Africans.

FOUR DAYS OF PROTESTS

It was the fourth straight day of protests by the migrants, who on Monday marched to foreign embassies in Tel Aviv to appeal for international intervention.

Protester Mulugieta said: “Everyone has come across the border, we escaped the war but they fear us (here) … we are not the enemy of the Israeli public.”

Dozens of migrants have been summoned for detention at a specially-built centre in Israel's Negev desert, where they are allowed to leave for brief periods during the day but must return at nightfall, activists said.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has said Israel's detention policy towards the migrants caused “hardship and suffering” and was not in line with a 1951 world treaty on the treatment of refugees.

Outside parliament, several left-wing legislators addressed the crowd. Erel Margalit of the opposition Labour Party apologized to the protesters after Parliament Speaker Yuli Edelstein refused to allow a delegation in to meet lawmakers.

David Grossman, a writer identified with the Israeli left-wing, told the protesters that the Jewish state's treatment of the migrants was shameful.

“I look at you now … I feel embarrassed and ashamed,” Grossman said in English. “Israel has not created this problem, but there is a problem now (and) we have to struggle with it and to solve it in the most humane way.”

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich

Agreement reached on African migrants at Israeli border


Israel said it will allow two female African migrants — one who is pregnant — and a teen to enter the country, and turn over more than a dozen other refugees who have been trapped at its border to Egyptian authorities.

Thursday's decision by the Israel government came hours after the Israeli Supreme Court decided to hold another hearing on the migrants' situation on Sunday. The hearings are in response to a petition filed by We are Refugees, an Israeli NGO, that calls on Israel to provide food, water and medical care to the refugees.

Officials in the Prime Minister's Office called the decision a humanitarian solution to the problem of the 20 African migrants who have been trapped for a week between Israel's border fence with Egypt, The Jersusalem Post reported.

Later Thursday, an Israeli official told the French news agency AFP that the agreement was reached between military commanders from both Israel and Egypt, along with the migrants, who had refused to be sent back to Egypt.

Israeli soldiers have been ordered not to let in the refugees but reportedly have provided them with water.

“It is important that everyone understand that Israel is no longer a destination for infiltrators,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement Thursday evening after the agreement was announced. “We are determined to stop the flood of infiltrators that has been here. We built this fence and it has already lowered the number of infiltrators by 90 percent. We will intensify steps against those who employ illegal infiltrators, and we will continue the effort to return infiltrators to their countries of origin.”

Also Thursday, Israeli police and troops blocked a delegation from the Israeli chapter of Physicians for Human Rights from visiting the trapped migrants.

The Prime Minister's Office on Wednesday evening released a statement saying that Israel is not obligated under international law to allow the migrants to enter, since they do not face persecution in Egypt. Also Wednesday, the envoy for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel, William Tall, called on Israel to allow the refugees to enter Israel and apply for asylum.

Last month, a group of migrants stuck along the border was allowed to enter Israel after four days. They were sent to a holding facility for illegal migrants.

African migrants stuck at Egypt-Israel border


A group of some 20 African migrants is trapped between Israel's border fence with Egypt and Israeli soldiers who have been ordered not to let them in.

The soldiers reportedly are providing water to the migrants, who as of Tuesday had been there for five days. The migrants, who include a pregnant woman, have refused to be sent back to Egypt.

Last month, a group of migrants stuck along the border was allowed to enter Israel after four days. They were sent to a holding facility for illegal migrants. 

Humanitarian organizations have called on Israel to allow the migrants to enter and apply for asylum.

Israel moves to deport Ivory Coast migrants


Migrant workers from the Ivory Coast have two weeks to leave Israel before they begin being arrested and ultimately deported, Israel’s Interior Minister Eli Yishai said.

In a message Thursday to the migrants, Yishai reportedly said, “You have two weeks to leave. Whoever does so will be eligible for a subsidy. Whoever does not will be thrown out.”

Migrants who choose to leave on their own will receive $500 per adult and $100 per child, according to a ministry statement, The Jerusalem Post reported.

There are up to 65,000 African migrants in the country, with those from the Ivory Coast numbering from a few hundred to about 2,000, according to the newspaper.

Earlier this week, 150 South Sudanese migrants were deported from Israel. The Interior Ministry offered them 1,000 euros, or about $800, for leaving voluntarily. A ministry spokesman said the discrepancy between that amount and what the Ivory Coast residents are receiving was unimportant, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara met in Israel earlier this month and agreed on a repatriation plan. The migrants had arrived in Israel without permission.

Israel’s refugee crisis: How about a Jewish response?


What shall be done about the large number of non-citizens who dwell in Israel?  This question is no longer merely vexing; it is urgent, inflammatory, sometimes violent, often vulgar.

The ger has a long and detailed history in Jewish texts and thought.  Its conventional translation is “stranger” but you don’t have to search hard to find alternatives: sojourner, foreigner, alien. 

Who are today’s aliens? There are some 14,000 migrant workers who entered the country legally but whose visas have expired or otherwise become void.  There are a number of Palestinians and Jordanians who work in Israel, some illegally.  There are more from other population groups.  And there’s the heart of the current matter, nearly 60,000 irregular immigrants, defined by the Ministry of the Interior as “infiltrators.”  They have arrived in Israel from Eritrea (60%), Sudan (25%), the balance from the Democratic Republic of Congo and other African countries; they come via Sinai, where many experience brutality from Bedouin gangs who guide them to the Israeli border.  Once in Israel, if identified as Sudanese or Eritrean, they are detained for a few weeks and then given a document that is, in effect, a deferred deportation order that must be periodically renewed and that explicitly states that it is not a work permit, plus a one-way bus ticket to Tel Aviv, where they are dropped at a park near the Central Bus Station.  And it is typically in that same neighborhood that they find shelter, work, and some social and medical services provided by volunteers.

These days, they also find rampant hostility from others in the neighborhood, hostility that has lately been marked by violence and by unambiguously racist slogans, hostility that has been encouraged by a number of Israeli politicians, most notably Eli Yishai, Minister of the Interior.  It is Yishai’s ministry that has formal responsibility for handling immigration issues, and the currently operative policy includes a law that was passed last January, holding that a camp shall be built near Saharonim, in the Negev, for these “illegals” (including their children), with buildings to house 13,600 of them and tents for the others.  The law provides that they may be detained there for three years or more.

The plan bumps head-on into two bodies of law.  First, there is the clear and repeated Biblical statement: “You shall not oppress a stranger, because you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt [Exodus 23:9]”  More proactively, in Deuteronomy [10:19]: “You are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.”  And still more: “There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you [Exodus 12:49]”.  It is difficult, to say the least, to square current Israeli policy with these precepts.

Still, the practical utility of such precepts is arguable.  Less arguable are the requirements of the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees, adopted in 1951 with Israel’s intense involvement and enthusiastic endorsement.  (Back then, the urgent problem was Europe’s displaced persons.) 

Who is a refugee?  The Convention, amended in a 1967 Protocol, defines the word: “A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” 

No one reasonably argues that according to that language, the 60,000 irregular immigrants in Israel are not refugees.  But: Since 1948, Israel has awarded refugee status to exactly 166 people.  In recent years, Israel has categorically denied Eritreans and Sudanese access to refugee status determination, which leaves them in a legal limbo. And therein lies the outrage as also the plain violation of international law. 

The Convention also forbids the arbitrary detention of illegal immigrants – i.e., in this context, people who have entered Israel via Egypt.  Hence the plans for a massive detention center are also a violation of Israel’s legal obligations.

The Forward reports (June 17) growing recognition of these issues by Israel’s leadership.  Whereas Prime Minister Netanyahu said on May 29, in the immediate aftermath of the anti-immigrant rioting, “My policy on the matter of the illegal foreign workers is clear: First, stop their entry through the fence, while at the same time, expel all infiltrators from Israel,” by June 4 he admitted that Israel cannot consider deporting the vast majority of African immigrants, due to the poor political or humanitarian situation in their countries.  “It’s clear that we cannot return Sudanese and Eritreans to their countries,” Netanyahu said.

Presumably, that means that Israel now intends to finish the fence under construction along the Sinai border and to proceed with the development of the detention center near Saharonim. 

The truth is that any alternative policy is enormously complicated.  Making asylum a reality and enabling refugees to live in dignity raises endless problems.  But here’s another truth: We who were slaves – strangers, aliens – unto Pharaoh in Egypt, we who therefore know the heart of the stranger – ought we not insist that plausible claims for asylum be processed?  Or: If we expect others to acknowledge that Israel is a Jewish state, is it wrong to expect that it will behave as one?

Israel rounds up African migrants for deportation


Israel said on Monday it had started rounding up African migrants in the first stage of a controversial “emergency plan” to intern and deport thousands deemed a threat to the Jewish character of the state.

Israel Radio reported that dozens of Africans, mainly from South Sudan, had already been detained in the Red Sea resort of Eilat, including mothers and children.

“This is only a small group of the infiltrators,” Interior Minister Eli Yishai said. “I’m not acting out of hatred of strangers but love of my people and to rescue the homeland.”

The goal is to repatriate all the estimated 60,000 African migrants, whose growing numbers are seen by many Israelis as a law and order issue and even a threat to the long-term viability of the Jewish state.

Illegal migration, and the pool of cheap labor it provides, is a common headache for developed economies. Israel is grappling with its own special ghosts as it tackles the problem.

For some in Israel, built by immigrants and refugees, internment and deportation are bad solutions that may damage the international image of the country needlessly.

They say rounding up members of a different racial group and holding them in camps for deportation may invite allusions to the Nazi Holocaust, however unfair such comparisons may be, and betrays Jewish values.

NOT CRIMINALS

About 500 Sudanese men held an orderly protest in Tel Aviv on Sunday against expulsion, the solution chosen by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after two months of heated debate over how to handle the flow of migrants.

“We are refugees, not criminals,” the Sudanese chanted, in a retort to allegations that Africans prey on Israeli citizens, following high-profile rape allegations.

Many Sudanese, including hundreds who escaped from conflict and humanitarian disaster in Darfur, have been in Israel for several years, living in legal limbo without formal refugee status, but peaceably, they say.

Now they are caught up in a wave of hostility towards blacks in general, focused on a poor area of south Tel Aviv where they congregate.

“We’re being called a cancer and an AIDS virus on the Israeli people, by politicians in the Knesset,” said protest organizer Jacob Berri. He accused government right-wingers of racist incitement and inflammatory language.

The number of migrants crossing into Israel over the Sinai desert border has accelerated since 2006. It ballooned last year when revolution distracted Egypt’s attention from policing Bedouin people-smugglers operating in the Sinai peninsula.

Israel has now built a high fence along the frontier.

“My policy with regard to the illegal infiltrators seeking work is clear,” Netanyahu said in a May 29 speech. “First of all, to stop their entry with the fence and at the same time to deport the infiltrators who are in Israel.”

He warns of Africans “flooding” and “swamping” Israel, threatening “the character of the country”. Emergency measures to reverse the influx will include “detention facilities with thousands of units”, Netanyahu said last week.

Berri said the South Sudanese number about 700. They know when they are not wanted and will leave, he said. But their refugee status must first be assured by the United Nations, and third-country resettlement programs established.

TIP OF THE ICEBERG

Israeli human rights and activist groups back the Africans. But right-wing and religious parties say that if they are not stopped today’s 60,000 will become 600,000 in a few years, in a population of 7.8 million.

Poor south Tel Aviv residents say affluent north Tel Aviv Jews can afford to be liberal, because the Africans are not in their back yard. An opinion poll last week showed 52 percent of Israelis agree that the Africans are “a cancer”.

“They’ve come here to rape and steal,” one Israeli woman shouted at a small but ugly anti-migrant demonstration earlier this month in south Tel Aviv. “We should burn them out, put poison in their food,” said an elderly man.

Netanyahu urges restraint. “We are a moral people and we will act accordingly. We denounce violence; we denounce invective. We respect human rights,” he said, but added: “Israel cannot accept “infiltrators from an entire continent”.

The term “infiltrators” is also used by authorities to describe armed Palestinian militants.

Voluntary deportees will get financial assistance.

“Whoever comes forward will get his grant … from the moment you come to immigration authorities and say you will pack up, from that moment you will be given an opportunity to pack up, and the grant of 1,000 euros,” Yishai said.

The first planeload is expected to leave Israel next week.

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Dan Williams and Crispian Balmer; editing by Andrew Roche

Jerusalem court clears way for S. Sudanese migrants’ deportation


A Jerusalem court ruled that Israel could deport South Sudanese migrants who entered the country illegally.

Thursday’s decision in Jerusalem District Court was in response to an appeal by NGOs representing African migrants. The appeal was filed after Israel’s Interior Minister Eli Yishai issued a decision to return the migrants.

Israel recognized South Sudan a day after it officially announced its independence from Sudan on July 9, 2011, and initiated formal ties three weeks later.

The decision paves the way for the deportation of about 1,500 South Sudanese who entered Israel illegally. Yishai said that he hoped the decision would be a precedent to allow the deportation of African nationals from other countries.

“This is not a war against infiltrators,” Yishai said, according to the Jerusalem Post. “This is a war for the preservation of the Zionist and Jewish dream in the land of Israel.”

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein said last month that South Sudanese could be repatriated to their country now that it has achieved independence and is deemed safe by the foreign ministry. Each asylum application must be considered individually, he added.

The Jerusalem court said that the deportations could commence since the case had not proven that those South Sudanese to be deported would face “risk to life or exposure to serious damage.”

It is not known when the South Sudanese migrants will be deported.

Israel will solve African migrant problem, Netanyahu assures


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decried violence against African migrants following a night of violent protest.

“There is no place for either the expressions or the actions that we witnessed last night,” Netanyahu said Thursday, a day after a demonstration in south Tel Aviv against illegal African migrants turned violent. “I say this to the public at large as well as to the residents of south Tel Aviv, whose pain I understand.”

Netanyahu said the problem of the infiltrators would be solved.

“We will complete construction of the fence within a few months and we will soon begin repatriating infiltrators back to their countries of origin,” he said.

Wednesday night’s violent protest in south Tel Aviv’s Hatikvah neighborhood, involving about 1,000 protesters, ended with 17 arrests.

Protesters attacked African migrants who passed the demonstration, and smashed the windshield of a car carrying three migrants as well as other car windows. They also set trash bins on fire and threw firecrackers at police, Ynet reported. The rioters also broke into and looted shops associated with the African migrant community.

Meanwhile, the head of Peace Now, Yariv Oppenheimer, called on Israel’s attorney general to investigate three Israeli lawmakers who he said incited violence and racism during their speeches at the protest.

The lawmakers who participated in the protest were Miri Regev and Danny Danon of the Likud Party and Michael Ben-Ari of the National Union Party. Regev, for example, called the Sudanese “a cancer.”

The Israeli daily Yediot Achronot reported Thursday that the Public Security Ministry is considering deploying Border Guard troops in south Tel Aviv to prevent problems between residents and African migrants, and to fight crime associated with the migrants.

Israel’s Justice Ministry announced Wednesday that migrant workers from South Sudan could be returned to their country after it is established that they are not eligible for political asylum.

More than 50,000 African migrants and asylum seekers are living in Tel Aviv alone, according to government reports. Most entered through the border with Sinai.

On Sunday, Netanyahu said that the surge of illegal African migrants into Israel “threatens national security and identity.” Last week, Interior Minister Eli Yishai told Army Radio that most African migrants in Israel are involved in criminal activity and should be imprisoned and deported to their countries of origin.

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