Haaretz has learned that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has demanded that Israel provide an explanation for the secret deportation of more than 1,000 Sudanese migrants via a third country.
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A Haaretz story on the practice on Tuesday drew an outcry among human rights activists and politicians, with Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich describing the deportations as “immoral” and MK Dov Khenin of Hadash calling for them to be halted immediately. . Khenin also asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to investigate who ordered the repatriation in the first place.
No official response on the matter has yet been received from the UNHCR, nor is it responding at all at this stage. The United Nations has not been informed, nor does it know in real time, about repatriations from or outside jail. This has not been reported, nor is it being done with any coordination with the UNHCR.
Sudan defines Israel as an enemy country and has warned that it will punish any of its citizens who set foot here. Consequently, human rights groups said, the deportation constitutes a violation of Israel’s most basic obligations under international law.
“The ease with which the State of Israel is willing to force people to return to a place where their lives are in danger, even if this danger arises only because they were in Israel, is worrying, and shows that we have become a society that sanctifies Jewish demography and gives it priority over humanistic Jewish values,” said Reut Michaeli, executive director of the Hotline for Migrant Workers.
While the state claims that all those deported left voluntarily, aid groups say the deportees were coerced by the threat that if they didn’t go, they could be jailed for years under a recent amendment to the Infiltration Law.
Sudanese migrants “who hear from government representatives that the law enables them to be held in prison forever without trial, and without their being able to apply for refugee status, despair,” said Michaeli. “They are even willing to endanger their lives to gain a slim chance at freedom.”
Shahar Shoham, who heads the migrants department of Physicians for Human Rights, agreed that the deportees could not really be said to have acted out of their own free will.
“At our open clinic, we treat many who report daily anxiety, fear of walking down the street and suicidal thoughts,” she said. “Is this free choice? And more than that, is this the treatment and protection we as a state give to victims of torture, human trafficking and persecution?”
Israel attempted to protect the deportees by deporting them via a third country to conceal the fact that they came from Israel, but the deportation took place without the knowledge or supervision of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
“In deporting [people] to Sudan, Israel has crossed a red line and is not only violating its most basic obligation under international law, but demonstrating cruelty, hardheartedness and indifference to the fate of human beings,” Assaf, the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, said in a statement.
Haaretz, which first broke the story, has repeatedly tried to obtain a response from Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, but his office again refused to comment Tuesday. As of press time, no response had been received from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Interior Minister Eli Yishai.
Meretz chairwoman Zahava Gal-On assailed Weinstein. “The attorney general is responsible for the fact that Israel’s government is acting contrary to the rule of law,” she wrote on her Facebook page.
Yacimovich said Israel should be helping asylum seekers, not sending them back. “The Jewish nation is well-versed in persecution and pogroms, so we have a special obligation to extend aid to refugees from genocide,” she said.
The UN’s position on voluntary repatriation to northern Sudan was clearly stated in the past. Michael Bavli, a senior adviser to the UNHCR, told the head of the Immigration Administration in 2008: “Deporting Sudanese to Sudan would be the gravest violation possible of the refugee convention that Israel has signed – a crime never before committed.”
Last October, an opinion of the United Nations signed by UNHCR’s representative in Israel, William Tall, was attached to a petition against the intent to imprison citizens of northern Sudan in a deliberate attempt “to make the infiltrators loath to stay in Israel,” as Interior Minister Eli Yishai said. Tall wrote that the repatriation of Sudanese citizens presented not only a logistical challenge, considering that there are no diplomatic relations between Israel and Sudan, but that it also caused concern regarding the possible risks that the repatriated people could face for having stayed in an enemy country. The voluntary repatriation of asylum-seekers from Sudan was possible, he said, if it was done discreetly and under conditions that ensured the decision to return was completely voluntary and made without duress, threats of deportation or force. Repatriation from prison, for example, does not meet the UN’s criteria for voluntary return.
Tall recently spoke about the issue in an exclusive interview with Haaretz. The matter of “voluntary return” from prison was raised following testimony that came from the prison stating that Eritrean citizens in custody were being made to sign forms indicating their “willingness” to return to their country of origin.
“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,” Tall said. He had harsh criticism for the Population and Immigration Authority and claimed that the Eritrean citizens “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 comparison with the forced signing of forms that is currently going on, with no cooperation from the UN, Tall said that the United Nations had been involved in the past. “We saw people, and there were clear criteria,” he said. “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.”