Pilots from Israel’s national airline El Al have stated that they refuse to fly African asylum seekers forcibly back to their home countries. Picture: AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File

Johannesburg – Pilots from Israel’s national airline El Al have stated that they refuse to fly African asylum seekers forcibly deported from Israel back to their home countries where their lives could be at risk.

Their refusal comes as Israeli police continue to hunt down African asylum seekers, with four Eritreans and Sudanese arrested by immigration police over the weekend in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod as businesses and apartments were raided amid reports some of the Africans were hiding in attics, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported.

On Monday, thousands of African asylum seekers demonstrated in front of the Rwandan Embassy in the northern Israeli city of Herziliya protesting against Israel’s plans to deport them to the African country following an agreement between the Israeli and the Rwandan authorities – although Kigali has hit back and adamantly denied that “any secret agreement” to that effect exists.

One of the Israeli pilots, Iddo Elad, wrote on Facebook: “I’ve joined many of my colleagues in declaring that I will not fly refugees to their deaths. I will not be a partner to such barbarism.”

A second pilot, Shaul Betzer, stated: “There is no way that I, as part of a flight crew, would participate in taking refugees/asylum seekers to a destination where their chances of surviving (in a ‘third country’) are minuscule.”

And a third pilot, Yoel Piterbarg, wrote: “Refugees who are already living among us cannot be thrown away like stray dogs back to their countries, where suffering, rape of women and girls, and agonising death awaits them – places like South Sudan and other African countries.

“Let the refugees remain here and be taken care of immediately, as human beings. Just like the Jews were refugees once, wanting to be cared for and not thrown out.”

Last September Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Tel Aviv, where many of the migrants live, would be returned to Israeli citizens, adding that they were not asylum seekers but ‘illegal infiltrators’.

The Israeli authorities went one step further several weeks ago, offering to pay Israeli citizens over $8,000 each to track down the Africans and help expel them.

The moral stand taken by the pilots followed action taken by the Zazim community group which reported that 7,500 Israeli citizens had appealed to the pilots not to cooperate with the planned deportations.

However, the pilots’ collective stand will not affect planned deportations since El Al doesn’t actually operate flights to Rwanda.

To date, Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers have been flown to Rwanda on foreign airlines through Jordan, Turkey and Ethiopia.

Rwanda and Uganda are both reportedly ‘third countries’ to which the Israeli government plans to deport some 35 000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers who entered Israel illegally since the 2000s.

But the Rwandan government released a statement on Monday alleging that false rumours were being spread by the media.

“In reference to the rumours that have been recently spread in the media, the Government of Rwanda wishes to inform that it has never signed any secret deal with Israel regarding the relocation of African migrants. In this regard, Rwanda’s policy vis-à-vis Africans in need of a home, temporary or permanent, within our country's means, remains ‘open doors’,” read the media statement.

“Rwanda’s position on migrants, wherever they may originate from, was informed and shaped by a sentiment of compassion towards African brothers and sisters who are today perishing in high seas, sold on the markets like cattle or expelled from the countries in which they sought shelter.

“Rwanda is ready to help in whatever limited way it could, by welcoming anyone arriving at its borders in need of a home, voluntarily and without any constraint.”

African News Agency/ANA