By Hedva Iscar, Kav LaOved activist and volunteer

An invitation to the second meeting of the “Return Infiltrators to Their Countries” lobby was received by Kav LaOved two days before it was held on Wednesday, April 24th. It was sent via email by attorney Yachin Zik, an aid to the head of the lobby, Member of Knesset (MK) Ayelet Shaked, as though she suddenly remembered that it may be important to present the appearance of some form of democratic process and invite representatives of human rights organizations. In spite of my doubts, which I will specify later, I decided to join.The lobby also invited attorney Dror Granot, representative of the Attorney General, and Professor Gabi Barbash, Director of Ichilov Hospital, to give explanations and present data. Former Minister of the Interior and present-day MK Eli Yishai walked in fashionably late, as suited for the honored guest of a lobby promoting his initiatives. He came to give praise, and remind anyone who had forgotten, that he was the one who would “lead the fight on infiltrators… with valor” even though “they grew horns on my head and turned me into a villain.” He promised to be of assistance to the lobby from the opposition as well, “until finally, we will fill up the holding facilities with infiltrators and return them to their lands.”In the center of the discussion was a question regarding why the Attorney General instructed the government to stop the “voluntary return” policy of refugees to their countries, or why he is “chaining the hands of the Immigration Authority and does not allow it to have the 2,000 prisoners held in Saharonim facility signed on ‘voluntary return’ forms.” The claim was made that the Ministry of Justice did not approve imprisonment of additional refugees, thus leaving the prison with 800 vacancies. As a result, the Ministry of Finance cut 300 million NIS from the prison services budget for recruiting prison guards, claiming that no new positions are needed as the prison isn’t fully populated.

The cause for stopping the “voluntary return” policy was the story of an Eritrean refugee who was forced to sign return forms in an Israeli prison, and was flown to Uganda. He was denied entry into Uganda and was deported to Egypt, and subsequently arrested at Cairo Airport. The story was published in early March in Haaretz. Following the publication, the Attorney General ordered the Immigration Authority to stop deportation of arrested refugees, until a legal ruling on the matter was made. MK Shaked, in her role as head of the lobby to return asylum seekers to their countries, met with the Eritrean Ambassador to Israel, who assured her that “immigrants who will be returned to the country” are in no danger. This statement stands in direct contrast to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees statement that Eritrea is a totalitarian country that systematically violates human rights.

Furthermore Attorney Granot unsuccessfully attempted to clarify the existing legal situation, and found himself under attack by all MKs and the majority of the meeting’s participants. He tried to explain that he is only permitted to present the legal perspective guiding the Attorney General, and is not authorized to answer any questions deviating from the legal context.

Professor Gabi Barbash gave examples via a presentation titled “The Medical Treatment of African Migrant Workers.” According to his data, there are 80,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Tel Aviv, making up 15% of the total population of Tel Aviv-Yafo (falsedata that was presented with no supporting evidence). He further stated that Ichilov Hospital is their only medical option, and they all receive excellent medical treatment, free of charge. According to Professor Barbash, every day two babies are born to African parents; they are in need of twice as much neonatal intensive care than Israeli babies. Among the adults are patients with contagious diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria, as well as HIV carriers. In 2012, there were 3,081 emergency visits and 1,730 hospitalizations with estimated costs of approximately 50 million NIS per year. The refugees (he used a different word) “are transparent, and we are alone,” concluded Professor Barbash to the sound of applause.

My immediate response to this was that at least some of the refugees needing treatment have medical insurance, and that the hospital is supposed to receive payment from the National Insurance Institute for births by mothers who worked, or have a working partner. Professor Barbash again claimed that “none of the mothers pay, and nor does any migrant,” and yelled at me, “What are you saying? That I’m lying? Prove otherwise.” I said that in the entire country, there are approximately 60,000 refugees and asylum seekers (truth is that according to recent data published by the Population and Immigration Authority, the numbers are even smaller), and added that the lobby is pointless and should be disassembled. I managed to get another sentence in about how refugees and asylum seekers should be granted work permits and health insurance that is not dependent on employers, and through that, help relieve some of the distress of the neighborhoods – but then the yelling amplified and my words were interrupted by shouts of “Human rights organizations are enemies of the country” and “We are run by the human rights organizations and the Attorney General.”

When the noise subsided, MK Yariv Levin returned to the main issue concerning the lobby, and gave a long and bothersome sermon directed at the Attorney General. If we narrow it into one summarized sentence, we receive the following summary/complaint: the State Attorney is dragging its feet and is preventing the Immigration Authority from doing its job, and the question is why (or to put in other words: if it has a secret agenda).

There is a dilemma for human rights organizations regarding whether or not to attend a debate as a minority (you might even say an oppressed one) by a parliament lobby that explicitly attacks our guiding principles and is not interested in our information or messages, but only in our participation in the role as a fig leaf. That is a dilemma certainly worth exploration and discussion. In spite of the doubts and the mental effort the meeting requires, I am not sorry I went. I think it is important to show our presence in these forums, at least for the following reasons:

Parliamentary lobbies should not be discounted as being lesser than Knesset committees, and therefore ones that we should not invest time and resources in. The make-up of the lobby and the energies driving it could have a significant effect, much greater than imagined.

It’s important to know the individuals who represent the social and political powers whose object is to hurt us and the people we work for.

It’s interesting to follow such gatherings directly, to be able to create effective strategies against them.

And finally, because it’s important to give a very clear message – that we are not afraid of direct contact with racism and its representatives, and that we are ready to take advantage of any platform to speak out.