Israel Finally Lets Swedish-Eritrean Tourist Enter, After 5-day Detention

Border control suspected woman was planning to settle in Israel illegally.

Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior
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2003 photograph Ben-Gurion Airport's detention facility for those refused entry to Israel. Credit: Alon Ron
Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior

A Swedish citizen of Eritrean origin was released from custody at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Monday and allowed to enter Israel after she had been held for five days by border control officers who suspected she was planning to settle here illegally.

Not only did Lod District Court Vice President Avraham Yaakov order Azeb Gebreegziabher released in response to her appeal, he ordered the Population, Immigration and Border Authority to pay her 25,000 shekels ($7,200) in damages, and scathingly criticized border officials for holding her in the first place, implying that racism may have been at work. He also demanded an apology.

“The clerks of the respondent acted in an arbitrary and extremely unreasonable fashion. Israel cannot be portrayed in the world as blocking entry to European citizens simply because of their ethnic origins,” Yaakov ruled.

Gebreegziabher’s attorney, Daniel Kfir, praised the judge for “defending the basic constitutional rights that were forgotten by the Interior Ministry.”

The border authority, however, insisted that what she told the court was not consistent with what she had told the border control officers at the airport.

“The data presented in court on this issue totally contradicted the data the passenger presented to the border control officers, to whom she unequivocally stated that she was single and childless,” the authority said in a statement. “When other facts emerged during the court hearing, the authority agreed to allow her entry beyond the letter of law, subject to her depositing a guarantee. We will study the ruling and weigh whether to appeal.”

According to the border authority record of her questioning, Gebreegziabher, 44, said she had planned to visit with a relative in Tel Aviv for two weeks and tour the country with him; she had a round-trip ticket and $1,000 with her. According to the report, she said she knew that the refugees’ situation in Israel was good, that they work and that the authorities treat them well.

She said she had heard everything in Israel was nice, adding that the weather was very cold in Sweden and foreigners there weren’t treated so well.

In court, Gebreegziabher stated that she was a hospital worker in Sweden, had lived there for 14 years and had two daughters, aged 7 and 12, at home, facts that were confirmed by the Swedish Embassy. Border authority officials insisted, however, that during questioning at the airport, she had stated that she was childless, which is one of the things that made them suspect her motives and refuse her entry.

The judge said there was nothing in her responses to questioning that indicated she planned to stay illegally and ascribed racist overtones to the decision. “The respondent was apparently relating to one fact that isn’t typical of Swedish citizens – that the appellant is of Eritrean origin,” he said. “It’s inconceivable that the respondent would discriminate against citizens of the same country solely because of their origin.”

He said the appellant had no reason to say she had no children and that he did not believe she did say so, “which casts doubt on the reliability of the entire report.”

What transpired, said Yaakov, reflects the general attitude of the border authority to Eritreans. “It’s hard to understand the logic of the respondents, who apparently thought the appellant would choose to exchange her Swedish citizenship with all its attendant economic benefits for a status of no status in Israel,” he said in his ruling.

During the hearing, the border authority representatives agreed to allow Gebreegziabher entry, on condition she post a 30,000 shekel guarantee. Yaakov called that demand “scandalous,” and ordered her freed “unconditionally, and with an apology for the five days she was held at the airport.” 

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