Migrants from Africa waiting on line to register as asylum seekers.
Migrants from Africa waiting on line in Tel Aviv to register as asylum seekers. Photo by Ilan Assayag
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The recent decision by a Swiss federal court to allow an Eritrean residing in Israel to enter Switzerland and seek asylum there marks the nadir in Israel’s treatment of asylum seekers.

On the one hand, Israel recognizes the dangers facing them in Eritrea and does not expel them, declaring that it abides by the non-refoulement principle of not returning asylum seekers to countries in which their lives or liberty are at risk. On the other, Israel incarcerates them for an indefinite period at the Holot detention center in the Negev, thus depriving them of their liberty and pushing them to accept deportation.

The Swiss court considered the petition made by the asylum seeker, who had been instructed to show up at Holot for indefinite detention. In his petition, the person expressed concern that he would be deported back to Eritrea, since his residence permit was revoked after he was summoned to Holot. The Swiss court emphasized that Holot is located in the desert, surrounded by a fence and far from any settlement, with inmates forbidden from seeking employment outside the facility.

The court determined that this person is at risk of being deported to Eritrea, or to a third country (Uganda), in which his potential fate is unclear. Under these circumstances, the court ruled that it would be unreasonable to demand that he stay in Israel.

This ruling demonstrates how Israel itself has become an unsafe place for asylum seekers. This contravenes the principles of international law, conventions that Israel is a signatory to, and Israel’s own constitutional law, according to which Israel is obliged to protect the rights and safety of asylum seekers.

The Swiss court ruling should serve as a severe warning sign for Israel, which, as a result of its treatment of asylum seekers and their detention in Holot, has joined the list of questionable countries that disregard international law.

The government and Knesset should change their attitude to asylum seekers and allow them a safe stay in Israel without confinement, as long as they are at risk in their countries of origin. Policy makers who act in contravention of international commitments made by Israel – headed by Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – should reverse their direction.

If they refuse to do so, the High Court of Justice may become the last gatekeeper ensuring the rule of law. In addition to its overturning of an earlier amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law, the court will have to reject the present version, concocted in an attempt to bypass its earlier ruling, which allows the incarceration and abuse of asylum seekers.