Despite Court Order, Israel Barely Releasing Eritrean Asylum Seekers From Prison

Only 12 of 280 Eritreans have been released due to the government's narrow interpretation of a ruling that defection from the Eritrean army could be grounds for claiming asylum

Lee Yaron
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Asylum seekers outside Saharonim Prison in Israel
Asylum seekers outside Saharonim Prison in IsraelCredit: Meged Gozani
Lee Yaron

The Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority has released only 12 of the 280 Eritrean asylum seekers from Saharonim prison. This is due to the authority’s narrow reading of a court ruling that defection from the Eritrean army could be grounds for claiming asylum in Israel as a refugee.

Israel is a signatory to an international convention that obligates the country to provide refugee status to those with a well-founded fear of persecution if they were to be returned to their home countries. In February, a Jerusalem appellate tribunal ruled that a petitioner who had deserted the Eritrean army was entitled to refugee status in Israel because he had a well-founded fear of persecution there over his desertion. (The length of military conscription in Eritrea is indefinite.) As a result, Deputy Attorney Dina Zilber also ordered the release of all Eritrean asylum seekers whose cases were similar. The Justice Ministry is expected to appeal the ruling over concern that the government will be required to reopen thousands of asylum-request cases.

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The immigration authority was given responsibility for determining the criteria for deciding which cases were similar, and it chose to release only those with identical circumstances. That meant that only those who fled military service in Eritrea and were then jailed for deserting before managing later to come to Israel were released. Those who deserted but were not jailed in Eritrea were deemed not to have had sufficiently similar circumstances to qualify as refugees.

“I was in the army from age 17. I refused to be drafted because I wanted to finish my studies and they put me in jail for two years,” said a 29-year-old Eritrean who was one of the 12 released from Saharonim. “After that, I worked another two years in the army in forced labor.” He said he later fled from Eritrea via Sudan and crossed the Sinai to the Israeli border.

The judicial ruling and the deputy attorney general’s order does not cover Eritreans whose requests for asylum have been denied but who are not being held at Saharonim. Some of them have had hearings in advance of their expulsion to a third country, and will be required to leave Israel this month.

Elad Cahana and Anat Ben-Dor, lawyers from Tel Aviv University’s Refugee Rights Clinic who filed the appeal with the Jerusalem appellate tribunal, have demanded that the interior and justice ministries reopen the cases of thousands of asylum seekers denied recognition as refugees even though they deserted the Eritrean army.