Despite Ruling, Asylum Seekers in Israel Are Jailed Without Option to Appeal

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African asylum seekers waiting at a bus station outside the Saharonim detention facility.
African asylum seekers waiting at a bus station outside the Saharonim detention facility.Credit: Maya Ben Nissan

In the last month, the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority has jailed 280 asylum seekers at the Saharonim prison in the south immediately after they refused to be sent by Israeli authorities to a third country.

The immediate detention is in violation of a 2015 Be’er Sheva District Court ruling that requires the state to grant the asylum seekers 14 days between the date on which they are notified of their impending incarceration for refusing to be sent to a third country and their actual imprisonment. The district court ordered the two-week period to enable them to find a lawyer who would file a petition on their behalf and for the scheduling of a preliminary hearing in their cases.

The refugee rights clinic at Tel Aviv University sent an urgent request a month ago regarding the state’s actions to the Population, Immigration and Border Authority and the Justice Ministry, demanding that the state be required to comply with the 2015 court ruling and halt the immediate detention of the asylum seekers, most of whom are from Sudan and Eritrea. The clinic, which has not yet received a response, also demanded the release of those who have been jailed in what it claims is a violation of the court’s ruling. One lawyer, Michal Pomerantz, has filed 10 appeals on behalf of clients on the matter and has obtained a stay of execution in all 10 cases, barring her clients’ incarceration or expulsion until a final ruling is made.

In mid-January, the border authority began holding hearings at the Holot detention center — an open facility, adjacent to Saharonim, wich detainees were free to leave during the day as long as they reported for roll call. It has just recently been closed.

The hearings examined the detainees’ intentions regarding the state’s offer to expel them to a third country. At the end of the hearings, they were told that they had 30 days to decide whether to accept the offer. After the 30-day period ended, they were summoned for an additional hearing at which they were required to announce their intentions. The authority began holding the second set of hearings at the end of February, after which those who refused the offer were immediately sent to prison at Saharonim.

In a letter sent to the Tel Aviv University refugee rights clinic in 2015 during the same month as the Be’er Sheva District Court ruling, Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber wrote that the legal adviser to the border authority had confirmed the agency’s intention to proceed in accordance with the ruling.

For his part, Elad Kahana, a lawyer at the refugee rights clinic, said: “The Interior Ministry has not been allowing those held at Holot to object to the decisions in their case until the actual moment of their arrest, when it’s already too late. This is despite the district court ruling and the announcement by the state itself that it would give them two weeks to appeal the decision. Mass incarceration before the people’s circumstances are clarified runs counter to the court ruling and the state’s own commitment.”

Israel is a signatory to an international convention that requires it to grant asylum to those demonstrating a well-founded fear of persecution in their home countries.

In one case in which Pomerantz is involved, she represents an asylum seeker from Eritrea who has been detained at Saharonim for a week. Her client deserted compulsory army service in Eritrea and arrived in Israel and requested asylum. His request was refused because the grounds for his request for asylum were his desertion from the army. He was held at Holot, where a hearing was held in his case, but he only received notice of it on the day of the hearing. He was told that he had the option of leaving for a third country, Rwanda or Uganda, and informed that he had 30 days to make a decision, but if he refused the offer, he would be taken into custody.

Pomerantz commented: “It is apparent from the conduct of the clerks at the Population Authority that they are in such a hurry to carry out their plan of illegal expulsion to a third country – a plan with a lot of question marks hovering over it – and jailing as many asylum seekers as possible on this basis, that they are ignoring basic rules of proper administrative law and the [Population] Authority’s commitment to the court.”

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