By Iminza Keboge
Published January 22, 2018
Thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers face prison if they do not leave Israel by March 31, 2018.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) says a new Israeli policy, unless abandoned, “could lead to the indefinite detention of thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese nationals for refusing to leave Israel for Rwanda or Uganda.”
The rights body says “Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel have been unable to obtain protection because, according to the United Nations refugee agency, Israel’s unfair asylum system has either prevented or discouraged them from lodging asylum claims or has unfairly dismissed their claims.”
Israel’s Population, Immigration and Borders Authority (PIBA), under the Interior Ministry, announced plans to detain thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese men indefinitely if they refuse to leave. Although the first phase applies only to some men, HRW says, later phases could extend the policy to others and to women and children.
Men who apply after February 1, 2018 to renew their permit to stay in Israel, HRW says, will be told to leave Israel within 60 days if their asylum applications are rejected.
Israel says anyone who “does not voluntarily agree to leave” will face “enforcement and deportation proceedings.”
The detention policy is based on the 1952 Law of Entry into Israel, which says prospective deportees can be detained beyond two months if their lack of cooperation has prevented or delayed their deportation.
To date, Rwanda and Uganda have only accepted people who voluntarily agreed to leave Israel. Neither country has confirmed any agreement to accept anyone deported from Israel.
The Israeli High Court said in August 2017 that Israel could not deport Eritreans and Sudanese to Rwanda and Uganda and could therefore not justify detaining them for refusing to cooperate with efforts to deport them there.
About 50 000 Eritreans and Sudanese entered Israel through Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula between 2006 and 2012, when Israel sealed off its border with Egypt. Israeli officials have said they cannot deport Eritreans and Sudanese home because of human rights abuses in Eritrea and because Israel has no official diplomatic relations with Sudan, which also criminalises visiting Israel with up to 10 years in prison.
Until early 2013, Israeli immigration authorities blocked almost all Eritrean and Sudanese asylum applications. Between then and mid-2017, 12 295 people managed to lodge asylum claims, out of whom 7 437 were awaiting decisions as of June 2017.
UNHCR says that Israel has not processed Eritrean and Sudanese asylum applications fairly, which is starkly reflected in the fact that Israel has granted only 10 Eritreans and 1 Sudanese refugee status since 2009. Israeli asylum lawyers have told Human Rights Watch that about 700 Sudanese from Darfur have obtained humanitarian status, a status granted on a purely discretionary basis outside the asylum system.
“Now that the UN refugee agency has confirmed that Israel’s asylum procedures for Eritreans and Sudanese are deeply flawed, the Israeli authorities should drop their charade and urgently and fairly re-review all their claims,” says Gerry Simpson, associate refugee director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of jailing them, Israel should fairly identify and protect refugees among them.”
In March 2014 Israeli High Court proceedings, the State Prosecutor’s Office told the court that Israel had “begun to implement … two [transfer] agreements” with African countries, but the authorities have not confirmed the countries’ identities or published the agreements.
Rwanda and Uganda deny any agreements exist. However, nongovernmental organisations and journalists have interviewed dozens among an estimated 1 500 Eritreans and Sudanese who agreed in 2014 and mid-2015 to leave Israel and who were flown to Rwanda or Uganda.
UNHCR says that “some 4 000” people were relocated under the programme between December 2013 and June 2017.