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Asylum-seekers: Fr Rafic Nahra, “Israel knows what it means to be enslaved and attain freedom. Give dignity to these people”

The Israel-UHNCR deal allowing for the relocation of migrants to Western Countries and the job regularization of 40 thousand Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers was cancelled by Israel. Premier Netanyahu’s decision to scrap the plan is due to the protests of residents of the poor neighbourhoods of Tel Aviv who called for the immediate expulsion of migrants. Moreover, criticism to the deal was voiced by members of his political base, the Likud, and by the nationalist Jewish Home Party. The comment of Fr Rafic Nahra, coordinator of the pastoral care of migrants: "The Jewish people know what it means to be enslaved and be freed by God. They should remember that experience and the dignity it instilled, and bestow it unto others today”

Decision announced and put on hold: on Sunday April 2 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced an agreement with UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) providing for the resettlement to Western countries including Canada, Germany and Italy, of approximately 16 thousand out of a total of 40 thousand Eritreans and Sudanese immigrants to be phased in over the next five years. The migrants, most of whom are asylum-seekers, arrived in Israel in the years 2007-2012, crossing the border with Egypt in the Sinai. Under the deal, another 16 thousand immigrants would be have been granted working visas in Israel. It was a decisive step forward compared to the premier’s initial plan envisaging the expulsion of migrants to Rwanda and Uganda, encouraged by a compensation of 3500 dollars each. Those who refused the proposal would have no other option than detention of forced expulsion. The deportation plan was later rejected by the Israeli Supreme Court in the light of the fact that in Rwanda and Uganda they would have been unsafe again. Netanyahu’s UNHCR deal came under fire from members of his own party, the Likud, and by his own government, while Italy and Germany denied any agreement. On top of that, the residents of Tel Aviv neighbourhoods with a high presence of African migrants staged a protest against the deal. Hence it was decided to scrap the deal. The next weeks will clarify the fate of these immigrants – among them many Orthodox Christians and Catholics of Ge’ez rite – who depend on Bibi’s promise: “We’ll continue working to deport the infiltrators”

“Politicians must act with courage.” Father Rafic Nahra coordinates the pastoral care of migrants since September 2017, he also serves as Patriarchal vicar for Jewish-speaking Catholics in Israel’s Saint James’ Vicariate.

“I hope Israel’s political leaders won’t be influenced by the pressure exerted by a part of the Israeli population who oppose migrant presence in the Country –he remarked to SIR -.

I hope they will take a humane decision,

Respectful of human dignity and of these people’s rights, worthy of the beautiful Israeli tradition.

In fact the Jewish people know what it means to be enslaved, to be freed by God and become a free people. Israel should remember this experience and the dignity it received, now it should give it to others. I know that Israel is capable of this. I hope the Country’s political leaders act with righteous courage.

I have deep respect for this people. There are many big-hearted Israelis who help migrants and asylum-seekers.

Political leaders must show the same generosity.”

“We welcomed the initial agreement that envisaged the resettlement of 16 thousand asylum-seekers to Countries other than Rwanda and Uganda where they would have not enjoyed any form of protection, while the remaining 16 thousand would have remained in Israel”, said the priest born in Egypt into a Lebanese family and emigrated as a young man to Paris where he worked as engineer and where he started his religious formation in the diocesan seminary.

“It would have been a very good option, a humane, dignified solution. It should be remembered that only 11 of these 40 thousand people have been granted refugee status to date. Unfortunately the pressure exerted by members of the Prime Minister’s political coalition led to the annulment of the deal.”

The clear reference is to the Israeli Prime Minister’s visit to Tel Aviv’s south neighbourhoods marked by a high presence of African migrants and asylum-seekers. The Pastoral Centre “Our Lady of Valour”, founded in February 2014, is actively working in this area. “These are degraded neighbourhoods with high crime rates, drug dealing and prostitution. But it should be said that these are urban areas that were already poor before the arrival of migrants.

It’s not true that migrants caused the degradation of this areas. In fact these areas were already dilapidated before their arrival.

What is happening in Israel reflects the situation of other Western Countries.” On her part the local Church “does everything possible to help migrants and foreign workers (approximately 200 thousand according to estimates, Ed.’s note), especially families with children. We look after the children while their parents are at work and we offer counselling services regarding problems faced by the migrant population, by foreign workers and refugees, but unfortunately our outreach is very limited. But our efforts are ongoing and we continue assisting those in need, in order to be a true Mother Church where everyone feels at home.”

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