A special envoy to Uganda returned Sunday night without signing an agreement to deport asylum seekers there, Israel informed the High Court of Justice on Monday.
Consequently, it said, all asylum seekers who had been jailed because they refused to be deported to Uganda were released from prison on Sunday.
However, despite the fact that the High Court of Justice has frozen the deportations because the government hasn’t managed to sign an agreement with any third country willing to take involuntary deportees, the state has continued conducting pre-deportation proceedings against asylum seekers.
The court had ruled earlier that asylum seekers can’t be jailed for refusing deportation if the state doesn’t have a valid agreement with the country to which it plans to send them.
As of now, the state said, of the 214 African asylum seekers originally sent to Saharonim Prison, only eight Eritrean or Sudanese nationals remain there. It added that these eight were jailed because they committed a crime or endangered the public, not because they refused to be deported, so the court’s ruling didn’t apply to them.
In its submission to the court, the state said the talks with Uganda – referred to only as “the second third country” – had involved “the most senior officials” and continued steadily for weeks, including this past weekend, but since the special envoy returned to Israel on Sunday night, “no update to the agreement has been signed.”
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At the pre-deportation hearings, the state tells asylum seekers that they must leave for “a safe third country under the agreements Israel has with both countries,” even though the agreement with Rwanda collapsed months ago and efforts to negotiate a revised agreement with Uganda have failed.
Last week, two days after the court extended its freeze of the deportations, the official conducting a hearing for one asylum seeker wrote that he had found “no exceptional reasons” to prevent the his deportation to a third country. He explained the deportation process to him, gave him “updated information” about the countries and told him “he had nothing to fear.”
The document the asylum seeker received also stated that after a hearing last August, the High Court had concluded that Israel could deport asylum seekers to these third countries under the agreements it had signed with them, and that these countries would give them residency permits and work visas. But it never mentioned the court’s freeze of the deportations, or the fact that the agreements with these third countries have collapsed.
In another case last week, the Population, Immigration and Border Authority told a different asylum seeker that his asylum request had been rejected and that he must leave the country within 30 days. “The subject was told that the third country is a safe country and the agreement with the third country ensures your safe departure from Israel, your absorption in the third country and your non-refoulement to your country of origin,” stated the letter he received.
This week the authority has also refused to issue new visas to asylum seekers whose visas have expired, even though they can’t currently be deported.
Attorney Eitay Mack warned the state prosecution this week that he would institute contempt of court proceedings against the government if it continued holding pre-deportation hearings for asylum seekers, since according to the High Court’s rulings, “There is currently no agreement with any third country.”
By holding these hearings, he charged, the government is violating the court’s stay of the deportations and trying to deceive the asylum seekers.
Meanwhile, the government announced at the Knesset on Monday that it not able to enforce a rule prohibiting asylum seekers from living or working in seven major cities – Tel Aviv, Eilat, Petah Tikva, Netanya, Bnei Brak, Ashdod and Jerusalem.
These cities host the biggest concentrations of asylum seekers, and the rule was supposed to ease the pressure on them. At a meeting of the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee, Yossi Edelstein, who heads the Immigration Authority’s enforcement division, said his office has no tools that would enable it to enforce this rule.
“Following the scrapping of the Holot facility, we have no enforcement tools against the infiltrators,” he said, referring to the open detention facility that was closed earlier this year because the government decided to deport the asylum seekers – a decision it has so far been unable to carry out. “We can only take enforcement action against those who employ them within the restricted areas.”
A police representative told the panel that police can’t enforce the rule either, as it isn’t within their purview.
Edelstein also said the Immigration Authority recently hired 70 new employees and 30 of those will join the asylum department in order to speed up the processing of asylum requests.
Committee Chairman Yoav Kish of Likud asked what steps were being taken to enforce a law requiring both asylum seekers and their employers to deposit a fraction of their monthly salary into a special account that the asylum seeker can access only when he leaves the country. Under this law, asylum seekers must deposit 20 percent of their salaries and their employers must deposit another 16 percent.
Edelstein said his agency would start making sure that employers deposit these funds in another two or three weeks.
According to figures published by Haaretz at the end of last year, there were 14,900 asylum seekers living in Tel Aviv at the time, down from 18,300 in 2014, but still far more than in any other city. Most live in neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv, and some of those neighborhoods’ residents have been agitating for the government to remove the asylum seekers.
“The government is responsible for this failure and it must provide immediate solutions,” said one such residents’ group on Monday. “We demand solutions now. Otherwise, the situation on the ground will get worse, and the first to suffer from it will be residents of south Tel Aviv. Prime Minister Netanyahu, it’s time to wake up.”
In Eilat, the number of asylum seekers has fallen from 6,000 to 1,800 over the last five years, since many of those working in the resort town’s hotels have been replaced by day laborers from Jordan. Petah Tikva is now home to the second-largest number of asylum seekers: 2,300. The other four cities all have between 1,000 and 1,800 asylum seekers living in them.
There are also some 5,000 asylum seekers whose place of residence is unknown to the government.
Kish said he was worried by the government’s “helplessness” now that its “correct” decision to deport the asylum seekers has proven a failure.
The Knesset Interior Committee was also supposed to vote on Monday on Kish’s proposal to transfer discussions surrounding the asylum seekers and the government’s efforts to deport them to a classified subcommittee. But the vote was postponed to allow the committee’s legal advisor to answer members’ questions.
Until now, most such discussions have taken place in public sessions of the full committee, with the subcommittee discussing only security or operational issues.
Kish said his proposal wasn’t meant to prevent open hearings but enable discussion of material the government has deemed classified.
“We want to get a full picture of the third-country agreement and related classified issues,” he said. “I believe that hearings should be held in open committee and should hear all opinions; I have no intention of closing them. But anything the government defines as classified material that can’t be discussed publicly will move to this subcommittee.”
Human rights groups and social activists, however, fear that many important discussions will be transferred to the subcommittee on the pretext of confidentiality. “It’s inconceivable that discussions dealing with the fate of human beings should be classified and decisions made in darkness,” said one such group, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants.