5,667 African Refugees Who Left Israel Returned to Home Countries

Israel maintains that asylum seekers were leaving to 'safe' third countries, but report shows majority have returned to Sudan and Eritrea.

Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior
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Asylum seekers from Sudan at the Ben-Gurion Airport before leaving Israel, 2014.
Asylum seekers from Sudan at the Ben-Gurion Airport before leaving Israel, 2014.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior

According to the state, 8,335 asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea left Israel over the past two-and-a-half years, with more than two-thirds of them returning to their home countries. While the state has always stressed that these asylum seekers were leaving to “safe” third countries, it turns out that the great majority returned to Sudan and Eritrea despite the threatening conditions there.

A report by human rights groups published in Haaretz in March raised serious questions about the fate of both groups. Asylum seekers who had returned to Sudan reported being imprisoned and tortured. The report’s authors were not able to make contact with anyone who’d returned to Eritrea, a dictatorship that imposes lengthy military service.

Between January 2013 and the end of July 2015, 4,608 Sudanese and 1,059 Eritreans returned to their homelands, while 2,688 asylum seekers – 1,980 Eritreans and 708 Sudanese – left for third countries, according to the Population, Immigration and Border Authority.

While the authority refuses to reveal the names of the third countries and how many asylum seekers were sent to each, it is known that Israel has sent asylum seekers to Uganda and Rwanda. The March human rights report also reinforced the findings of a Haaretz report in April 2014 that asylum seekers being sent to Uganda or Rwanda have no status or basic rights there.

In addition, 1,589 citizens of other African countries returned to their countries of origin.

The statistics were released by the authority earlier this month after repeated requests under the Freedom of Information Law that were submitted over five months by Dr. Gilad Lieberman, through attorney Eitay Mack. The data they received - first punished by news website 972, however, seems to differ from the statistics the authority has been publishing all along. For example, the data files on foreigners, which the authority says include data until the end of June, shows 464 more people leaving than the numbers given to Lieberman, which are supposedly updated to the beginning of August.

In recent months the pace of those leaving has slowed considerably. Interior Minister Silvan Shalom recently estimated that some 3,000 Africans would leave Israel in 2015, compared to 6,400 last year. According to the authority, there are now 45,000 “infiltrators” in Israel – 33,000 from Eritrea, 8,500 from Sudan, some 3,000 from other African countries and another 500 from countries elsewhere in the world. Some 1,700 Sudanese and Eritreans are being held in the Holot detention facility, while another 200 are imprisoned at Saharonim and Givon.

The High Court of Justice ruled last Tuesday that the state must “immediately” release all those who have been held in Holot for more than a year, giving a deadline of 15 days. Although eight days have past, none of the 1,200 detainees held more than a year have been freed.

“People have been asking the prison guards in the wing, and the guards say that people would be freed ‘100 percent’ but no one knows on what day,” said Anwar Suleiman, a Sudanese originally from Darfur. Suleiman, who has been in Holot for a year-and-a-half, was one of the petitioners against the amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law that the High Court ruled on last week.

“They’ve started to move people between wings, but we don’t understand why. Is that a sign that they want to start freeing people?” wondered Suleiman. “We don’t know what it means, but it gives hope. Tomorrow or the next day maybe they’ll start. They have until Wednesday. What scares us is that perhaps the time [set by] the court will pass, they won’t free anyone and instead they’ll say ‘we’re making another new law.’”

Sigal Rozen, the public policy coordinator at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, is similarly concerned. “Once again the Interior Ministry is ignoring the explicit instructions of the High Court, which ordered everyone held in Holot more than 12 months to be freed immediately,” she said. “Many of those held are convinced that again the state will find a way to avoid carrying out the High Court’s instructions.”

The Israel Prisons Service, which runs Holot, referred a reporter to the Population and Immigration Authority with regard to the expected release date. The authority said in response, “We respect the High Court of Justice’s ruling and will act in accordance with it.”

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