Under no circumstances will Eritrean nationals in Israeli custody be sent “to any destination outside Israel’s borders” until Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein further clarifies the relevant legal issues, he declared Monday.
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Weinstein, via his deputy, Dina Zilber, sent a letter to this effect to the director of the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority, Amnon Ben Ami.
Weinstein’s order was issued in response to a report Monday on Haaretz’s Hebrew website about the case of an Eritrean migrant whose “voluntary departure” from the country clearly went awry.
The man, T.H., had been given a choice by the Israeli authorities of “volunteering” to be sent to Uganda or spending three years in jail. But upon arrival in Uganda last Thursday he was refused entry, and the Ugandan authorities put him on a plane to Cairo. He was still being detained at Cairo International Airport Monday.
Zilber’s letter Monday referred to T.H.’s predicament specifically, saying, “This case is expected to be resolved with the return of the Eritrean national at issue to Israel by this coming Wednesday.
“To prevent, God forbid, such incidents from occuring again, I expect the population authority to uphold the directive of the attorney general under which, pending a clarification of the related legal issues, no Eritrean citizen will be allowed to leave the population authority’s custodial facilities to any destination outside Israel’s borders.”
UN High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Israel William Tall told Haaretz last week that there is no such thing as “voluntary departure” under threat of imprisonment, adding that migrants held in Israel are not being given full access to the procedures for requesting asylum.
International law also requires that before sending a person to a third country, there must be, among other things, a clear agreement by the third country that the migrant’s safety is guaranteed in its territory. In T.H.’s case there was clearly no such agreement, as evidenced by Uganda’s refusal to allow him entry.
T.H. spoke to Haaretz on Monday from what he said was a closed room in which he was being held at the Cairo airport. He said he was terrified that the Egyptian authorities would send him back to Eritrea, where as an army deserter he is liable to be imprisoned, tortured or subject to forced labor.
According to T.H., last Thursday he was flown at the order of the Population, Immigration and Border Authority to Uganda, after signing a form stating that he was leaving willingly.
“They told me that it was either jail for three years, or sign. The Interior Ministry bought me the ticket,” he said.
“I thought I’d go to Uganda and ask for asylum there,” he continued. “But they didn’t let me. I asked them, ‘Please, give me a chance to talk to friends. I have nothing. I have no money. They sent me here straight from prison.’ And they said, ‘Either go back to Israel or you’ll have to go back to Eritrea.’
“When I told them I wanted asylum, they took me physically and I started to cry. I said, ‘Please don’t put me on a plane to Eritrea, just not Eritrea − I ran away from there. So they put me on a plane to Cairo.”
“From here I have a flight to Eritrea but I don’t want to go,” said T.H. “I fled from there. They forced me into the army for years and I didn’t see my family. I went AWOL and so they put me in jail, and I escaped from jail and came to Israel. I can’t go back there!”
T.H. had been in Israel for four years and was jailed four months ago after being arrested at Ben-Gurion International Airport using a visa he had purchased from someone that he had been told was a visa to Europe but turned out to be forged.
Although official Israeli policy is not to arrest or deport Eritrean nationals because of the dangers they face in their native land, because T.H. had been involved in a “crime,” he was jailed and then given the choice of Uganda or three more years behind bars.
Upon hearing of T.H.’s plight, human rights groups petitioned the Interior Ministry to work to immediately return T.H. to Israel and to stop pressuring detained migrants to sign “agreements” to be deported.
Attorney Yonatan Berman from the Clinic for Migrants Rights at the College of Law and Business in Ramat Gan wrote to Ben Ami saying, “Sending T.H. to Uganda looks like an experiment by the Interior Ministry to see if expulsion to Uganda was an option, without making all the required examinations before sending a man to a country that’s not his country of origin. Well, it’s clear that this experiment has failed, and T.H. is paying the price.”
Reut Michaeli, executive director of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, said, “This time the Interior Ministry has proven without a doubt that its heart has hardened against the lives of asylum seekers. Deportation to Uganda with no agreement or coordination, against all the warnings and clarifications that this is illegal, means imposing a sentence of torture and even death on a person whose only wish was to live outside the walls of an Israeli prison.”
T.H.’s story took place only two weeks after Hadash MK Dov Khenin had been told by Ben Ami that no one had been expelled to Eritrea nor had there been any change of policy regarding Eritreans or any risk of their being deported. Upon hearing about T.H.’s predicament, he immediately demanded an explanation from Ben Ami about the discrepancy between what had transpired and what he had been told.
Before the attorney general had issued his instructions, the Interior Ministry said it was “looking into the circumstances of the case with the professionals, and when a general picture is received, a decision will be made on what, if any, steps to take.”
The Foreign Ministry claimed no knowledge of T.H.’s case, saying it had learned of it only on Monday.