Israel Reaches Deal With Third State Willing to Absorb Eritrean Migrants

Nearly 100% of Eritrean requests for asylum will be denied, says prosecution.

Israel has reached an agreement with an unspecified state willing to absorb illegal Eritrean migrants, and is in advanced talks with two other states seeking to reach similar agreements regarding the deportation of illegal Sudanese migrants.

Attorney Yochi Gnessin, who represents the State Prosecution, conveyed the information on Thursday during a High Court hearing on a petition against an amendment to a law that allows the prolonged incarceration of people who enter Israel illegally.

Gnessin also said that the state was likely to reject close to 100 percent of all Eritrean migrants' requests for asylum.

The attorney was responding to a petition submitted by various human rights groups demanding the annulment of an amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law that allows illegal migrants to be kept in custody for three years, simply for crossing the border into Israel.

Under the amendment, which went into effect a year ago, the Custody Tribunal can only release an illegal migrant before that time on special humanitarian grounds, such as advanced age or poor health.

“There has probably never been a law seared into the books that so fatally damages the right to liberty through administrative detention,” stated the petition.

The petitioners claim that Israeli and international law does not allow migrants to be incarcerated unless it is for the purpose of deportation, and that the mass detention of asylum seekers while they are waiting for their asylum applications to be processed is illegal.

The purpose of the law, the petition says − to deter more migrants from entering the country − is also illegal.

The petition was filed by five Eritrean citizens in Israel, together with Assaf, an aid organization for refugees; the Hotline for Migrant Workers; the Association for Civil Rights in Israel; Kav La’oved; and the African Refugee Development Center.

The petition is being heard by an expanded panel of nine justices, headed by Supreme Court President Asher Grunis.

Gnessin argued that nearly 100 percent of asylum requests by the Eritrean migrants are based on going AWOL from the armed forces or leaving their country illegally.

“It’s possible that there are cases of Eritreans who indeed oppose the regime,” she said, but the state believes they are a small minority. She noted that the interior minister had in recent days denied three requests for asylum by Eritrean migrants – the first requests addressed by the state of the 1,400 that have been submitted by those in custody.

In 2011, the ratio of Eritrean migrants recognized worldwide as refugees was 74 percent.

The state is not deporting Eritrean nationals back to their home country because of the danger that awaits them there. Sudanese nationals, however, are not being deported solely because there are no diplomatic relations with Sudan, which is why the state believes they can be deported to a third country.

“The requests of those who have individual grounds for requesting asylum will be evaluated and if necessary they will be granted asylum,” said Gnessin. “All the rest will have to leave the State of Israel to the country with which we have an understanding. We have reached an arrangement with one country, and we are en route to doing so with two other countries,” she said.

Gnessin explained that the first target country is for Eritrean nationals, while the other two countries will take in Sudanese citizens.

He emphasized that the agreement with the third country is not limited to a particular number of migrants, and added that the agreement primarily refers to Eritreans, but it will be possible to transfer citizens of other countries to the third country, too.

Gnessin also pointed to the plunge in the number of migrants in recent months and claimed that this had not happened because a fence was erected along the border with Egypt but because the law was changed. On Sunday the Population, Immigration and Border Authority announced that in May only two illegal migrants crossed the border, compared to 2,031 in May 2012.

“If we hadn’t passed the amendment to the Infiltrators Law, Israel would have found itself with 80,000 infiltrators today, 100,000 next year, 120,000 the year after that, and in my estimate, a geometric increase, with many more the year after that,” Gnessin said.

Attorney Yonatan Berman, who heads the Migrant Rights Clinic at the Ramat Gan Academic Center for Law and Business, said during the hearing: “The proportionality of the law can’t be determined by the question of whether a country can be found that will do the State of Israel a favor and relieve it of this punishment. Even if the state will find a country that will take all 2,000 people in custody tomorrow, the law will still be on the books, and give the state the power to start arresting those that are outside.” 

Nir Kafri