Israeli Court Backs Deporting Asylum Seekers and Arresting Those Refuse

Court ruling rejects rights groups' appeal for interim order preventing the deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda.

Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior
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Prisoners at Israel's Holot detention facility in the Negev.
Prisoners at Israel's Holot detention facility in the Negev. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior

The Be'er Sheva District Court rejected a request from human rights organizations on Sunday to issue an interim order preventing the deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda, as well as against indefinite detention for those who refuse to leave Israel.

The petition was filed by two Eritrean citizens now being held in the Holot detention facility who refused to leave Israel for Rwanda, and were subsequently notified they would be transferred Saharonim detention center until further notice.

The court froze their transfer from Holot to Saharonim when the petition was filed, but now the government is allowed to detain them and others in the same situation. The court's ruling will allow the government to implement the new policy that was exposed by Haaretz in late March.

"The petitioners did not present me with a substantiated evidentiary basis of the personal, specific danger they face and the general fear they noted is too broad and nonspecific; and does not seem to testify as to the general rule," wrote judge Rachel Barkai in her decision.

She said that even if the plaintiffs' testimony about a lack of status and basic human rights facing those leaving Israel for Uganda and Rwanda was true, "then these seem to be specific cases that do not represent the rule. On this matter we must consider that as of today some 2,000 people have left Israel and the evidence of a few individuals cannot indicate the overall situation."

The judge noted that Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has already approved the arrangements with the third countries involved, after making certain that there was no danger to the lives or freedom of the asylum seekers in those countries. "The fears of the petitioners to leave Israel after many years to a different country they do not know is a legitimate fear, but lacking any prima facie basis on the matter of a concrete danger to their liberty, it is inadequate to delay the step taken by the state," wrote Barkai. "The state's authority to remove infiltrators to a third country that meets certain conditions is no longer under contention."

The judge also rejected the relevance of a collection of 17 testimonies of asylum seekers in Uganda, prepared by Prof. Galia Sabar, the head of African Studies at Tel Aviv University’s Middle Eastern and African History Department. Sabar traveled to Uganda and Rwanda in March to learn the fate of these asylum seekers who agreed to leave Israel. Her findings showed that Rwanda does not let the asylum seekers remain in the country and many leave for Uganda, where they do not have basic rights and have a difficult time living.

Barkai said that if she had received a comprehensive statistical study examining statistically the situation of many hundreds, or close to the number of those who have left so far (some 2,000 people), then she could have received an overall and more precise picture. But evidence based on just a few individuals cannot provide such an overall picture, she ruled.

A confidential arrangement

There is no reason to intervene in the government's decision to detain asylum seekers who refuse to leave the country for a third country, said the judge. The law governing entry to Israel allows the government to detain whoever does not cooperate with their deportation, she said. "There is no dispute that expelling infiltrators from Eritrea and Sudan to their countries of origin is tainted with a real difficulty because of the events occurring in those countries, therefore a expulsion policy to other safe nations was formulated, which agree to accept the infiltrators from Eritrea and Sudan, and there is no reason the state cannot act on behalf of the exit of those infiltrators to a third country," she wrote.

The judge did call on the government to weigh revealing the details of the voluntary departure agreements with these third countries, which are under a confidentiality order issued by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It would be appropriate for the state to reconsider revealing this information to relieve the worries and fears of those asked to leave for one of these third countries, she said. This should include the reports following the implementation of their responsibilities by the other countries as to their guarantees for the safety and freedom of those who have left Israel, said the judge.

The government refused to reveal the details of these arrangements in court at the session on Wednesday. Instead, the representative of the State Prosecutor's Office told the court that the government would be willing to show the court the agreements and the Foreign Ministry's opinions on them, but not release them to the plaintiffs. In addition, a representative of the Prime Minister's Office is in regular contact with the authorities in these third countries and makes sure the agreements are being implemented properly, and when necessary deals with specific problems, she said. In addition, in April the Population and Immigration Authority in the Interior Ministry appointed an employee to be responsible for keeping in contact with those who have left Israel and to follow up on their absorption in the new countries, said the state's representative.

Anyone who leaves Israel for a third country, according to a newly implemented procedure, is asked to leave their details so they can be contacted, and are also given those of an employee of the Immigration Authority, so they can contact that employee if necessary, the state told the court. Two delegations have traveled to these countries in the past few months, she said. These delegations included representatives of various government ministries who visited the two relevant countries in order to make sure the agreements were being kept and these countries were safe for those who left Israel. In addition to meeting with government officials in these countries, the delegations also met with people who left Israel for those countries, she told the court. Their situation is good, she said. "The majority are not complaining."

The petitioners have said that the agreements with Rwanda and Uganda - if they do exist - are secret and have never been released. Senior officials in Uganda have denied that there is any such agreement. In a report in Ugandan daily New Vision, the country’s foreign minister, a spokeswoman for its Interior Ministry and the refugee commissioner in the Prime Minister’s Office said no such agreement with Israel existed. Henry Okello, Uganda’s foreign affairs minister, said that if Israel had sent asylum seekers to Uganda from Eritrea and Sudan, this had been done illegally.

However, Rwandan President Paul Kagame confirmed in April that Rwanda was in the last phases of formulating an agreement “totaling millions of dollars,” in which his country would take in illegal immigrants that Israel intends to deport.

The petition was filed by attorneys Anat Ben Dor and Elad Kahana of the Refugee Rights Clinic at Tel Aviv University. It was also submitted with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, Physicians for Human Rights and several other organizations. Other signatories to the petition include the Assaf Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel, Kav LaOved, and the African Refugee Development Center.

The plaintiffs said in their petition that they do not know if such a written agreement exists and whether it is binding, what are the protections is affords the asylum seekers, what status it grants them and what are their possibilities for remaining in those third countries. In addition, there is no mechanism for supervising the implementation and the fate of those who leave Israel. The lack of such a written and public agreement raises serious suspicions as to the contents of these agreements, they said. In itself, it shows the third country's lack of willingness to have its commitments overseen.

As far as is known, some 40 asylum seekers from Eritrea held in Holot have received deportation notices so far. The government has made it clear to them that at this stage it will only force those whose request for asylum has been refused, or those who have not even filed such a request, to leave. The first notices were given about three and a half months ago, a short time after the new deportation policy was revealed in Haaretz.

The asylum seekers were told at the time that if they do not agree to leave of their own free will within a month, they will be detained in the Saharonim detention center. As far as is known, after three months, none of those who received the deportation orders has left Israel, or has been transferred to Saharonim.

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