Israel: 177 Eritreans and Sudanese Left Country Voluntarily Last Month

Rights groups say jailed migrants are under heavy pressure to consent; practice in contravention of UN policy.

Last month, 177 Eritrean and Sudanese migrants left Israel voluntarily, says the Population and Immigration Authority, making progress in a program opposed by the United Nations.

Since Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein approved the procedure for what Israel calls voluntary repatriation, the authority has been encouraging jailed Sudanese and Eritrean migrants to sign forms saying they agree to return to their home countries. In exchange they receive $1,500 when they leave.

The procedure contravenes the UN position that an incarcerated person does not have free will when it comes to consent to leave a country, so such people should not be repatriated even if they sign consent forms.

According to the procedure, a videotaped interview is conducted with the migrant in the presence of a translator. The migrant is then asked to explain why he wants to leave Israel, using his mother tongue and own words.

The interview and the request are then examined by the Population and Immigration Authority and the Custody Tribunal. The migrant is allowed to retract his request at any point in the process. The procedure does not apply to migrants who have filed a request for political asylum and are awaiting a response.

The Hotline for Migrant Workers says the Interior Ministry pressures detained migrants to sign the voluntary repatriation forms. “Pressure includes statements that this is the only way to get out of jail, that there’s no such thing as a refugee in Israel, and that if they don’t sign immediately they’ll miss their flight,” a Hotline employee said.

According to the employee, an Eritrean jailed at the Saharonim detention center in the Negev told him that Interior Ministry people repeat: “Your asylum requests have not been accepted and Israel will never accept them, so you should sign the repatriation forms …. Don’t waste time because you’ll get $1,500 if you go back.” The ministry didn’t seem to care what might happen to the Eritreans back home.

The Hotline employee quoted a migrant as saying that Eritreans are going back “because of the pressure and because ... most of the people who sign have been detained for more than a year or nearly two.”

Hotline attorney Nimrod Avigal questioned the Population and Immigration Authority last week about seven detainees who have submitted asylum requests. “Suspiciously, shortly after Hotline submitted requests to release them because their asylum requests were pending, their representatives learned that they had signed the so-called voluntary repatriation forms,” Avigal said.

According to Dawit Damoz, a representative of the Eritrean community in Israel, the police are more frequently taking advantage of new regulations letting migrants be jailed without trial. He said this was happening for prolonged periods for relatively minor charges.

“The police are going around south Tel Aviv looking to put people in jail …. We see people disappearing from Tel Aviv; no one helps them,” Damoz said. “They’re taking people from here to jail and from jail to Eritrea. How can they say this is voluntary?”

According to the Population and Immigration Authority, last month only one person crossed the border into Israel from Egypt illegally, compared with 268 a year earlier. “After stopping infiltration to Israel over the Egyptian border, we are moving ahead day by day in fulfilling government policy of returning the illegal infiltrators to their homelands or to third countries,” the authority said.

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Daniel Bar-On