Asylum Seekers Ask Supreme Court Justices to Let Them Stay in Israel

State now offers them choice of deportation to Rwanda or Uganda, or indefinite imprisonment.

Ilan Assayag

The Supreme Court heard a petition Tuesday by human rights organizations against the ruling to allow the state to imprison asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan who refuse to leave Israel for Rwanda or Uganda. The petitioners said asylum seekers cannot be forced to leave Israel for Rwanda or Uganda as long as arrangements with these countries are not made public and oversight of their fate remains insufficient.

The organizations presented testimony indicating that asylum seekers who left Israel for Rwanda or Uganda were not allowed to remain there and had no legal status. In response, the state told the court that arrangements with these countries presented no danger to the deportees, and that oversight was sufficient.

The five-justice panel, heded by court President Miriam Naor, first conducted a hearing in the presence of both sides. Population and Immigration Authority officials, representatives of human rights groups, residents of south Tel Aviv where many asylum seekers live, and asylum seekers were also present in the courtroom.

The head of Supreme Court petitions in the Justice Ministry, Hani Ofek, declined to respond to some of the justices’ questions in open court regarding oversight of agreements with the third countries, citing a ban by the prime minister on state representatives revealing the identity of the countries or the agreements with them.

The hearing was then continued behind closed doors, with representatives of the state. Another closed-door session was scheduled for five weeks from now.

Naor suggested during the hearing that oversight of arrangements be increased by stationing Israeli representatives in the third countries, and having an Israeli official accompany the asylum seekers to those countries.

Ofek responded that she would study the idea.

The petition was submitted by attorneys Anat Ben-Dor and Elad Kahane of Tel Aviv University’s Refugee Rights program, in the name of two Eritrean asylum seekers now being held at Holot detention center in the Negev. The Population and Immigration Authority informed the two that if they did not depart for Rwanda they would be incarcerated for an indefinite period at Saharonim Prison.

Dozens more asylum seekers are in the same situation.

Other signatories to the petition include the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Physicians Without Borders, Kav Laoved – Workers Hotline, Assaf – Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel, and the African Refugee Development Center.

The justices pressed the state’s representatives for details of the Rwandan justice system. However, Naor responded that she did not think she could reveal such details for fear she would expose the identity of the country in question. She then gave a brief response: “The U.S. State Department report on the country in question determines that the courts are usually independent and unbiased and there are systems for presenting suits, including in the area of human rights breaches.”

Naor said there was “something absurd” about “all this demand for secrecy.”

Naor asked the petitioners what arrangement would satisfy them, to which one of their representatives responded: “independent and direct oversight is an essential condition in real time, when people arrive,” adding that such arrangements must be “effective over time.”

Ofek said some 3,000 asylum seekers had left for Rwanda and Uganda. She added that as a result of the petition the state had expanded its oversight and sent a delegation that had met with a small group of deportees. The state had tried to contact 760 of them, but had reached only a third, and that these people had “reported no special problems.”

Kahane noted that the state had met with only a few deportees and had been put in touch with some of them through the Rwandan authorities. This, he said, cast doubt about the reliability of their testimony.