Report: Asylum Seekers Who 'Voluntarily' Left Israel Were Tortured in Sudan

Interviews with former Holot prison inmates reveal that many who departed Israel in past two years have been subjected to torture, imprisonment and persecution after returning home.

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African migrants walk on a road after leaving the Holot detention facility, Dec 15, 2013Credit: Reuters

Some of the over 9,000 asylum seekers who left Israel “voluntarily” over the past two years have been jailed, tortured persecuted, or are wandering as stateless persons lacking documents or status, according to a new report by two human rights organizations.

Asylum seeker arrives at Holot detention center in January 2014. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The report is based on interviews with 47 asylum seekers who left Israel since the Holot detention facility was opened in December 2013 and asylum seekers began to be summoned there for indefinite detention unless or until they agreed to leave Israel “willingly.” The report was compiled by the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants and Assaf, the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel.

The writers note that it was very difficult to collect information, because many of those who left the country have little or no access to phones or the Internet. Many in Sudan were afraid to talk to aid workers, lest the conversation be exposed, putting them or their families at risk. Some reported being accused of spying for Israel. Despite major efforts, the researchers were unable to contact anyone who had returned to Eritrea.

The testimonies show that those who left for Sudan are liable to be arrested, tortured and persecuted. Seven Sudanese were jailed upon their arrival in Khartoum, and six were tortured in prison for weeks or months. Even after their release, they were subject to threats and repeated police questioning. The authorities confiscated their property, including their passports, laptops and money. Three asylum seekers reported that they were trying to flee Sudan again; one managed to escape with his family to Jordan while another made it to France.

All the names in the report are pseudonyms. One asylum seeker, Adil, left Israel in March 2014 after being summoned to Holot. “When I returned to Sudan they caught me and put me in prison for six months. They beat me, cursed me, humiliated me. They kept accusing me of spying for Israel.” He said he was questioned about Israel’s possible links to the Sudanese opposition group SLM. He was eventually released, but his and his wife’s passports were confiscated. He is frequently called to the police station for questioning, or harassed by police at his home. “I want to flee Sudan to save my family, but I have no passport,” he said.

Another asylum seeker, Idris, who left Israel in April last year after being summoned to Holot, said he was jailed, released, and then jailed again. “They punched me and hit me many times with a plastic tube. They asked me what I did in Israel and why I was there so long. They asked what I know about the SLM and who works for them in Israel.

“They come to me when I’m at work, they interrogate my mother. I am very scared. I regret having left, but between Holot and Sudan there was no good decision. Holot is hard, but after what has happened in Sudan I would have stayed in Holot,” he said.

Two months ago, in response to a petition filed by human rights organizations against the latest amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law, the state said that 1,093 asylum seekers had left to third countries since March of last year. The state refused to name the countries to which asylum seekers were sent (which, it emerged, were Rwanda and Uganda), but claimed that it had reached agreements with them approved by the attorney general and that met international standards. The report’s authors point out that according to United Nations High Commission on Refugees, agreements on the transfer of asylum seekers between countries are meant to be transparent and subject to court review. The state is meant to ensure that the asylum seekers who leave are granted full rights after their arrival the third country.

The state gave no details on the agreements and it turns out that there is no follow up of those who left. At a meeting of the Knesset Interior Committee on March 26 of last year, then-Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar sought to reassure those who fear for the safety of asylum seekers who left Israel. “They are in touch with their friends here,” he said. “When I visited Holot I heard from people who are in touch with the people who returned to their home countries. We have no knowledge of anything very bad that has happened to any of them. When someone told me about such-and-such rumors I asked them to give me facts. We have never received any other information.”

Testimonies gathered from asylum seekers who left for Rwanda and Uganda offer a bleak picture.

“At Ben-Gurion Airport they get an Israeli travel document, a defense letter or a tourist visa valid for three months. According to all accounts, the Israeli travel document is taken from them when they arrive in Kigali or Entebbe, the capitals of Rwanda and Uganda respectively, by local representatives who are coordinating with the Israeli immigration authorities,” the report states. “Two nights in a local hotel in Uganda are funded by the State of Israel. Then the asylum seekers are required to leave, without documents and without any way to prove from whence they came. Even if they are not arrested or deported, they have no status or rights, and they cannot exist or survive in those countries. They leave those countries and set off on a new journey as refugees.”

‘Like a dog in the street’

Dawitt, an Eritrean asylum seeker, lived in Israel seven years. He never got a response to his asylum request and he left for Rwanda in January 2014, after being summoned to Holot.

“Two days after my arrival [in Rwanda] I went to Uganda with a smuggler. At 5 A.M. we were caught and taken to jail because we did not have papers. We were in jail a few hours. They asked us where we were from, if we were jihad or shabab,” he said, referring to groups of Islamist extremists. “We said we came from Israel, which had expelled us to Rwanda and that we had walked for six hours. We paid $1,200 and they let us out of jail. We were afraid; everything was illegal because we had no documents. Without documents you like the dog in the street,” he said.

From Uganda he proceeded to South Sudan. “We paid $100 each and we got to Juba. Every part of the way you have to pay to continue, because we have no passport and no nothing,” he recalled. “In South Sudan, if someone on the street realizes you aren’t from there, they will pull a pistol on you.”

The report’s authors hope that the information will lead Israel to reevaluate, “How free is the ‘will’ expressed by the asylum seekers who leave, when their freedom is denied them or about to be denied them.”

The rights groups call for the agreements with the third countries to be disclosed, with emphasis on the guarantees for the safety of those who leave, and recommend that their status be followed up and that the officials involved in the process be supervised. Given the severity of the failures, the report also calls for the state comptroller to investigate the “voluntary exit” process.

The Population, Immigration, and Borders Authority did not respond by press time.

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