As a consequence of the reported agreement between Israel and the two African countries Rwanda and Uganda – both countries officially deny such a deal is in place – to allegedly take in refugees form Eritrea and Sudan that currently reside in Israel, a number of protests have been and will be held. One of those, to be held in front of the Rwandan embassy in London on 7 February has the sub-slogan: Tell Rwanda no #Refugees for Sale.
Wait a minute the uninformed spectator might wonder: Rwanda is selling refugees? Well, not quite. Israel wants to get rid of the rather small number of 35.000 refugees from Eritrea and Sudan that still reside in the country, many, while without official recognition, living and working in Israeli cities. To this end, it ‘offers’ those refugees a plane ticket, US$ 3500 and allegedly pays Rwanda (and Uganda, but Rwanda seems to be singled out for protest) US$ 5000 for every refugee it accepts. Those refugees who receive this ‘offer’ need to take it up before 1 April 2018, otherwise they are threatened with detention.
Thus, clearly, if one insists on using the trope of ‘selling refugees’, in itself rather controversial, Israel is doing the sale. Following this logic, the protest surely should take place in front of the Israeli embassy? Not least because this policy of deporting (a word that seems to do more justice to what is happening than selling) refugees to Rwanda is not new, and from the stories we know of past journeys it has emerged that a well-structured processing operation is under way once these refugees arrive in Rwanda, and none of the rights to asylum promised to them by Israeli authorities have actually materialised. While it is not proven how far Israel’s involvement in this deportation-chain goes, as the policy has its origins in the Israeli un-hospitality and its denial of refugee rights, that is where protest should start – and it would at least be fair to give the Rwandan claim that they are not part of the deal a fair hearing.
As it happens, the protest announcement in front of the Rwandan embassy comes a few days after Holocaust memorial day. One of the more disturbing facets of marking that day over the years has been the tendency to conflate increasing anti-Semitism (for which there is ample evidence and which needs to be strictly condemned in all its forms) with critiques of Israeli state policy. This is quite disturbing in itself – as it ultimately only regards critique of Israeli policy by Israelis or Jewish people as legitimate, and all other critiques can be brushed over as ‘anti-Semitic’. Thus, maybe here is one reason why protests in front of Israeli embassies are rather avoided.
But I think an additional dynamic is at work here, a dynamic ultimately rooted in racial ideology. On the one hand there is the racism of Israeli politics itself towards African refugees in particular, a racism that also extends to those who are legitimate Israeli citizens, like Jews from Ethiopia. But racial dynamcis seem also hidden within the movements for solidarity with those refugees, and they come in different forms and guises.
There is the narrative of many of those who advocate on refugees’ behalf based on unreflect accounts of horror in their home countries. Eritrea in those accounts is painted as the most horrible place on earth, a picture that has little to do with the complex reality of a postcolonial state that achieved independence in the age of globalisation, but makes a simple reading of good versus evil possible – evil African dictators versus good white saviours of their innocent African victims. This is not dissimilar to the narrative propagated by the Save Darfur campaign in relation to Sudan that has been aptly analysed as based on racial and colonial stereotypes by Mahmood Mamdani, a narrative that has more to do with the white saviour complex than the complex realities of Darfur.
These dynamcis are carried into the protests against the latest deportation threat, where the focus is not so much on Israel, but on Rwanda, another African polity where the lives of those refugees will be nothing but horror. Here we go again: bad Africans do bad things to other, by implication innocent African victims. This story of ‘bad Africans’ and ‘innocent victims’ distorts reality at various levels. It becomes even more problematic when it relates back to for example the history of slavery, as in a recent protest in front of the Rwandan embassy in Israel (see my latest blog). The African slaves once sold to work on sugar plantations in the Caribbean are now sold to work in the tea plantations of Rwanda? Of course not!
Still, some of those deported to Rwanda in the past faced a difficult future, and clearly no refugee should be deported to a place where their safety cannot be guaranteed – thus as long as this guarantee is missing, planes to Rwanda should be grounded. There might also be those who actually made a successful life in Rwanda or through moving on – but they do not make the news, or for those who move on, only the stories of their horrid journeys do. This focus on the horrors experienced during their post-deportation journeys adds another troubling dimension to the story of the ‘bad African’: It creates, whether intended as such or not, a kind of hierarchy of deservedness, implying that we owe them compassion because of their past suffering. From the refugees I met in Israel during my own research, a few had been kidnapped and tortured on their way through Sinai when the Israeli border was still open. But most simply paid the people smugglers and had a not always pleasant, but also not inherently unsafe journey (in particular when compared to the other option available to them at the time they decided to come to Israel: the boat route across the Mediterranean). Both groups of refugees, no matter how their journeys unfolded, should receive the same rights and protection.
Israel has a small number of mostly well-integrated African refugees, and almost no newcomers have entered the county since it built its border fence with Egypt in 2013. It would be easy to integrate them, they pose no threat to the country in any way, as the government claims, but many make valuable contributions to Israel’s labour market and society. The racialised refugee and citizenship policy of the Israeli state is responsible for their current plight – thus why hold a protest in front of the Rwandan embassy? And what would be the case if not Rwanda, but let’s say Germany, would have offered to take those African refugees in, and be paid the US$ 5000 per head that allegedly Rwanda is receiving? Would we see protesters in front of the German embassy against #Refugees for Sale. I very much doubt it.