Israel will deport Eritrean, Sudanese refugees to Africa under new policy

Authorities believe there is no legal barrier to forcing Eritrean and Sudanese citizens to leave Israel for a third country that is not their native country – even if this is done against their will.
By Ilan Lior | Mar. 31, 2015 | 9:38 AM
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African asylum seekers at the Holot detention facility protest their comrades’ expulsion from Israel
African asylum seekers at the Holot detention facility protest the expulsion from Israel of others, February 17, 2014. Photo by Eliyahu Hershkovitz
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Israel will begin to deport Eritrean and Sudanese citizens to countries in Africa – even without their consent – under a new policy in the works at the initiative of the Israel Population and Immigration Authority.

Until now the state would impose considerable pressure on Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers to leave on their own accord, either to their native countries or to other African countries, but refrained from deporting them. Those who have left Israel have done so only after signing a document declaring that their departure is voluntary. This is because Israel grants group protection to asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea, as it is bound to by the Refugee Convention the state has signed. Group protection means that Israel cannot deport people whose lives would be in danger in their own country.

However, in the last few months the Population and Immigration Authority – a branch of the Interior Ministry – along with Justice Ministry representatives have been discussing a policy change. The authority believes that there is no legal barrier to forcing Eritrean and Sudanese citizens to leave Israel for a third country that is not their native country – even if this is done against their will. The Justice Ministry is expected to permit their deportation to neutral states. In the initial stage, the target countries are Rwanda and Uganda. The policy change will most likely not take place until it has the approval of the new interior minister, a post likely to go to Shas leader Arye Dery.

Two months ago, a representative of the state hinted at such a policy change during a High Court of Justice discussion of the issue. If an asylum seeker in Israel was offered the option of moving to Canada, the person would not have the right to refuse, argued attorney Yochi Gnessin, who heads the State Prosecutor’s Office department that deals with illegal immigrants. “A person who is offered a move to a state that does not constitute a danger to their life or their freedom does not have the right of veto,” she said.

There are currently about 42,000 citizens of Eritrea and Sudan in Israel, of which some 2,000 are being held in the Holot detention facility in the Negev. According to data the state provided the High Court, 5,803 citizens of Sudan and Eritrea left Israel last year, 1,093 of them to third countries. Until now, Israel has not revealed the names of the third countries or the nature of the agreements, if any, reached with them, but it is known that asylum seekers have been sent to Rwanda and Uganda.

A Haaretz investigation published last April revealed that those asylum seekers who left Israel for Rwanda and Uganda had no basic rights and no legal status in those countries. This made survival virtually impossible, prompting them to leave Rwanda and Uganda and resume being refugees once again, according to reports by human rights groups.

According to the United Nations refugee convention, asylum seekers cannot be sent to any country unless there is an agreement with that country that ensures safeguarding their rights and welfare, notes Oded Feller, an immigration lawyer with the Association of Civil Rights in Israel.

“The government of Israel has refused to expose any agreements with the governments of Uganda and Rwanda, and it is doubtful if any such agreements exist in writing. Those countries deny there are agreements at all,” added Feller.

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