UN Refugee Official Slams Israel Over Eritrean Repatriation

In exclusive interview, UNHCR head William Tall tells Haaretz: 'It is explicitly not voluntary return.'

Talila Nesher
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Talila Nesher

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees' representative here slammed Israel's so-called voluntary return of Eritreans to their life-threatening home country, saying there was nothing voluntary about it. Last week Haaretz published testimonies by jailed Eritreans saying they were coerced by threats of three years imprisonment into signing documents agreeing to be sent home.

In an interview with Haaretz, William Tall, the representative here of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said: "As UN High Commissioner, we have access to the prison, and we heard what the state offered them. Agreement to return to Eritrea under an ultimatum of jail ... can't be considered voluntary by any criterion. It is explicitly not voluntary return."

According to the testimonies, immigration officials from the Interior Ministry give jailed Eritreans two choices: Spend at least three years in prison or sign a voluntary return form, according to which they supposedly are interested in going back to their country.

According to reports by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the totalitarian regime in Eritrea violates human rights and defines its army as an extremely dangerous force. Men and women are conscripted into military service for almost their entire lives. Punishment for draft dodging and leaving the country to avoid the draft is usually not made through the court system, and includes death by burning, extended imprisonment in inhumane conditions, torture and forced labor.

The Population and Immigration Authority responded in a statement that the details are being checked and it has no intention to discuss the matter based on shreds of information until clarification is completed. The Justice Ministry has yet to comment, while the Eritrean Embassy in Tel Aviv refused to respond.

The director general of the Population and Immigration Authority, Amnon Ben Ami, recently responded in writing to MK Dov Khenin's (Hadash) demand for an explanation by saying no one had been forcibly expelled to Eritrea, and that there was currently no change in the state's policy or danger of "expulsion" to that country. However, he admitted that "recently the Population and Immigration Authority received a number of requests by Eritrean detainees, who asked to arrange their voluntary departure from Israel, and the matter is under examination."

Tall rebuked the Population and Immigration Authority's treatment of Eritreans, saying those in detention "don't receive full access to the refugee apparatus, and when there's no access to the refugee apparatus that can lead to their release, then there is no voluntary return."

In contrast to the dealings with the Eritreans, with which the UN refugee agency is not involved, Tall says that in the past his office was involved, for example, in the genuinely voluntary return of South Sudanese. "We saw people, and there were clear criteria," he says. "One of the clear rules was that there are no interviews from within the prison, because factually there is no voluntary return from prison because there is no free will.

"The government needs to provide an Eritrean access to sanctuary. That's not happening," he continued. "I wrote the government in no uncertain terms that we are concerned that these returns will be made under pressure, instead of allowing access to the refugee apparatus, and that it will be impossible to view them as voluntary returnees to Eritrea. We clearly wrote that under no circumstances can return under threat of imprisonment, without any access to the asylum apparatus, be considered voluntary."

Israel, despite being a signatory to the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, does not recognize Eritreans as refugees, and therefore does not award them rights guaranteed according to the convention. Instead, Israel provides them collective protection from expulsion to their native country. Israel has held in jail indefinitely Eritreans who entered the country since June, when the amendment to the infiltration law went into effect.

While Israel does not grant refugee status to any Eritreans here, other countries confer this protection on 74 percent of Eritrean applicants who apply for it, according to the UN High Commissioner's 2011 annual report.

UNHCR representative William Tall.Credit: Moti Milrod
African migrants marching to the UN headquarters in Tel Aviv in protest of violence against asylum seekers from South Sudan and Eritrea, June 10, 2012.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

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