Israel Denies Rights Group Report It Coerced African Asylum Seekers to Leave

Nearly 7,000 Eritreans and Sudanese left Israel under pressure; some were imprisoned and tortured upon returning to their native countries, says Human Rights Watch report.

Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior
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African asylum seekers at the Holot detention facility protest the expulsion from Israel of others, February 17, 2014.
African asylum seekers at the Holot detention facility protest the expulsion from Israel of others, February 17, 2014.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior

Israel has denied allegations that it has unlawfully forced deportation of thousands of African refugees, as documented in a recent report by the Human Rights Watch.

The report, entitled “Make Their Lives Miserable” (quoting former Interior Minister Eli Yishai), harshly criticizes Israel’s policies toward asylum seekers, and noted that up to last June at least 6,400 Sudanese and 347 Eritrean citizens had officially left Israel.

The report accuses Israel of violating international law by interning asylum seekers and exerting unacceptable pressure on them in an attempt to make them leave the country.

“The fate of Eritrean citizens returning from Israel is unknown, although Human Rights Watch has documented how Eritrean authorities abuse Eritreans returning from other countries,” says the report, penned by the organization’s representative in Israel, Gary Simpson. Seven Sudanese citizens who returned to Israel told Human Rights Watch that they were arrested and interrogated in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. Three of them testified that they were detained for prolonged periods. One of them was tortured and another held in solitary confinement, while the third was accused of treason due to his stay in Israel. The report details their testimonies without naming them.

One testimony was given by a 36-year-old man from Darfur, who talked to a representative of the organization last January. He said that he was in Israel for three years, and left after being detained in 2012, placed in the Saharonim facility in the Negev and told that he would never be released. “They put me on a plane to Cairo, where I waited for four hours before being put on another plane to Khartoum.” He was interrogated at Khartoum airport, where they asked him why his passport didn’t have an exit stamp from Egypt, from where he went to Israel. “I didn’t answer so they asked me if I had been in Israel.”

He testified that he was then taken to another room in which he was asked many questions about Israel, including the names of Sudanese opposition figures residing in Israel. He was then transferred to a nearby facility belonging to Sudanese Intelligence, where he was held for four months.

“For the first ten days they tortured me. They beat me with large sticks, poured boiling water over me and electrocuted me” he said. Since he was from Darfur and had gone to Israel, he was accused of opposition to the regime. After four months he was released but was required to report every few days to the department of national security, to ensure that he hadn’t left Khartoum.

“This report documents how Israel has created convoluted legal rules to thwart Eritrean and Sudanese refugees’ attempts to secure the protection to which they are entitled under international and Israeli law. It also shows how Israel has used the resulting insecure legal status as a pretext to detain or threaten to detain them indefinitely, and has thereby coerced thousands into leaving Israel,” says the report’s summary. The report deals extensively with the Holot and Saharonim detention facilities.

The report notes that to date Israel has granted refugee status to only two Eritreans and to no Sudanese asylum seeker. “Israel’s use of detention to coerce people into leaving has been reinforced by an asylum system that systematically denies Eritreans and Sudanese access to fair and efficient asylum procedures. This helps Israel avoid granting them refugee status which would entitle them to remain in Israel with freedom of movement and associated rights until it is safe for them to return to their home countries.”

The report also discusses the transfer of Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers from Israel to third countries in Africa. The report’s writers note that despite repeated claims by Israeli representatives, no African country has admitted to signing such an agreement. “UN Refugee Agency guidance requires that transfers of asylum seekers should comply with a range of conditions, including the existence of a formal agreement regulating transfers,” states the report.

“Absent such agreements, there is no guarantee that receiving countries will admit

Eritreans and Sudanese and no assurance those countries will not return them to their home countries where they risk persecution. Yet Israel’s policies have coerced at least 83 Eritreans and Sudanese, including some in detention, to depart Israel to Rwanda and Uganda and in one known case to Ethiopia, without any formal transfer agreements.”

The international human rights organization calls on Israel’s government to make an official one-off declaration that it will recognize Sudanese citizens as apparent refugees due to the harsh punishments they can expect if they return to Sudan from Israel. In addition, the organization asks the government to consider asylum requests by Eritrean citizens, using UN Refugee Agency guidelines and based on the harsh penalties facing Eritreans who dodge military service.

“The second option would be for the authorities to grant Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel a secure temporary protection status based on established criteria, such as widespread human rights abuses in their home countries. The status should be renewed until conditions in Eritrea and Sudan sufficiently improve to allow for return in safety and dignity or until Israel’s asylum system is capable of providing full and fair decisions on individual refugee claims”, says the report.

“To end a decade of ad hoc and unlawful Israeli asylum polices that now threaten to result in mass refoulement of thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese, Human Rights Watch calls on Israel’s allies to publicly pressure the Israeli authorities to adopt such an approach” adds the report.

According to Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority, there are currently 47,000 African asylum seekers in Israel who entered without permits. Thirty five thousand of them are Eritreans, 9,000 are Sudanese and 3,000 are from other African countries. Earlier this year there was a sharp rise in the numbers leaving Israel, peaking in February with 1,700 departures. The numbers decreased in recent months, with 379 departures in August.

The Interior Ministry’s responded that “this is the result of a plan designed to influence impending decisions by the Supreme Court regarding petitions submitted to it in an attempt to block the new Anti-infiltration Law. Israel is acting legally and proportionately in contending with illegal infiltrators. The increase in the numbers of those leaving, which is three times larger in 2014 than in 2013, demonstrates that our policies are bearing fruit.”

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