Israeli Judge: The State Is Risking the Lives of Eritrean Refugees

Israel has special classifications known as 'Ethiopians of Eritrean origin' and 'mixed Ethiopians' that are causing problems for the refugees.

The state repeatedly deceives the courts, telling them Eritrean refugees deported to Ethiopia are in no danger, while the authorities know this puts the migrants' lives at risk, says a petition against the intended deportation of an Eritrean refugee.

Israel has special classifications known as "Ethiopians of Eritrean origin" and "mixed Ethiopians" that are causing problems for the refugees.

Eritrean refugee
Alon Ron

"The authorities know the refugees' lives are in danger - they are imprisoned as soon as they land at the airport [in Ethiopia] - but they repeatedly hide it from the courts," said attorney Omer Shatz of the human rights group Anu Plitim. The petition is on behalf of an Eritrean, Prau Isho Hagos.

Petah Tikva District Court Judge Avraham Yaakov has said at a hearing on Hagos' petition that the state's contradictory statements were tantamount to "gambling with human life."

Hagos, 24, migrated with his family to Ethiopia after the war with Eritrea that ended over a decade ago. In Ethiopia his mother, brother and sister were murdered and the family's house was burned down. Hagos and his father and brother fled to Sudan.

When he entered Israel in 2009, Egyptian soldiers shot his brother and his pregnant wife near the border. Hagos, who was injured in the incident, was arrested in Israel and detained at the Saharonim and Givon prisons for two years.

He told the authorities he was Eritrean and therefore entitled to protection from deportation. But the Population and Immigration Authority insisted he was Ethiopian, a status enabling immediate deportation.

Hagos produced documents proving his nationality, as required. The authority finally agreed he had been born in Eritrea, but argued he was also Ethiopian and therefore part of a group classified as "Ethiopians of Eritrean origin" or "mixed Ethiopians."

But an official from the Ethiopian consulate met Hagos in custody and refused to grant him Ethiopian papers, claiming he was not Ethiopian.

The prosecution argued that the decision to deport Hagos was reasonable because he could not prove he was Eritrean and "failed to prove he did not have Ethiopian nationality."

The state told the court last year that "mixed Ethiopians were in no danger if they were deported to Ethiopia .... There is no evidence the Ethiopian authorities harassed or discriminated against people who had stayed in Eritrea or who consider themselves partly Eritrean."

But later that month Ravit Topol of the Interior Ministry's Refugee Status Determination unit told the ministry's advisory committee on refugees that Ethiopia was not safe for "mixed Ethiopians." She also said the authorities didn't know what happened to refugees on their return to Ethiopia.

"They are all in danger of persecution," she said.

The Refugee Status Determination unit asked for a report on the situation in Ethiopia but has yet to receive it, she said.

"I find the state's position puzzling," said the judge. "Its arguments say explicitly it does not want to inquire and ascertain the danger [to the refugees]. In the event, it wants to gamble with human life."

Shatz said Anu Plitim intends to ask the State Comptroller to look into the state's treatment of asylum seekers.

For its part, the Population and Immigration Authority said Hagos had "confirmed that his mother was born in Ethiopia, and after she met his father they moved to Eritrea, where he was born. When he was 8 they returned to Ethiopia and lived there until 2008. He claims he left Ethiopia because of his Eritrean origins and that this had caused them problems in Ethiopia.

"Many contradictions were found in the interview with him, so his request was rejected. As part of the petition submitted for him, it was decided to release him on bail, and his birth certificate has been sent for examination."