The Interior Ministry is once again exploring the possibility of deporting asylum seekers back to Eritrea and Sudan, something it has thus far refrained from doing.
A plan proposed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, under which Western countries would take roughly half the asylum seekers and Israel would absorb the rest, has also been discussed by the parties concerned over the past few months, despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu having formally reneged on that deal in April.
Nevertheless, the half and half deal is apparently off the table as far as Israel is concernced. The UNHCR, however, still views the deal as relevant.
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In an official letter to MK Mossi Raz (Meretz) two weeks ago, Interior Minister Arye Dery wrote that as part of his ministry’s efforts to draft a comprehensive policy on asylum seekers, it is exploring various options and has held preliminary talks with “the relevant parties.”
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“We’re generating a picture of the general situation in Sudan and Eritrea and the implications thereof,” Dery wrote.
Nevertheless, he added, for now, the policy of non-refoulement to Sudan and Eritrea remains in force, since “at this stage, no decision has yet been made to change it.”
Yariv Levin, the minister in charge of liaising with the Knesset, wrote in a separate letter to Raz that deporting asylum seekers to Sudan “is being considered, subject to a situation assessment of the threat posed to them.” He said the government is also considering reopening the open detention facility in Holot, which was closed earlier this year after a plan to deport the asylum seekers to third countries fell through.
Both Dery and Levin were responding to questions sent by Raz.
“The overall solution is that they won’t remain here,” an Interior Ministry official involved in the issue said. “We’re constantly seeking solutions to get them out of here, and the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office are working on various possibilities.”
Raz lambasted the ministers’ responses.
“The prime minister and the interior minister don’t want to solve the woes of south Tel Aviv, residents, Israelis and refugees alike,” he said, referring to the area with the highest concentration of asylum seekers. “They’re too cowardly to stick to the wise, fair agreement signed with the UN and are terrified of their base, which refuses to listen to any solution that isn’t deportation.
“Even though the deportation option failed because it’s cruel, immoral and unreasonable, they’re still trying to implement it,” he added. “These repeated attempts to implement such a terrible solution constitute shocking stupidity.”
Earlier this month, Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a peace agreement, ending a 20-year war that killed 80,000 people.
“There’s no doubt the peace agreement is accelerating reconsideration of this issue,” a different Interior Ministry official said, referring to the deportation option. “If there’s peace, the main reasons why Eritreans demand recognition as refugees – desertion from the army and draft-dodging – will be less relevant. We’re waiting to see how other countries act.”
Ever since Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993, it has been ruled by the dictator Isaias Afwerki, who instituted mandatory military service that can last for decades and turned Eritrea into one of the world’s most closed-off countries. A UN commission of inquiry concluded that military service in Eritrea entailed forced labor tantamount to slavery and has accused Afwerki’s government of crimes against humanity.
Many Eritreans have fled to Europe or other African countries, and with the exception of Sudan, no country forcibly deports them back to Eritrea. In the first quarter of 2018, 88 percent of Eritrean asylum seekers in the European Union were granted refugee status, but even the others haven’t been deported.
Sudan is a different problem. It sees Israel as an enemy country and forbids its citizens to have any contact with Israel. It therefore threatens to punish any Sudanese national who entered Israel, meaning they could face arrest, torture and persecution if Israel sent them back.
Yet in May, Haaretz reported that Israel is looking into the possibility of deporting Sudanese who fled genocide and persecution back to Sudan.
A statement issued jointly by several Israeli organizations that help asylum seekers warned that the recent Ethiopian-Eritrean deal “won’t necessarily make the Eritrean regime stop enslaving its citizens. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has stated explicitly that given Eritrea’s ongoing human rights violations, the vast majority of its nationals now in Israel cannot return safely to their country.”
The signatories include the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, Physicians for Human Rights, Kav LaOved and ASSAF – the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers.
The U.S. State Department also says the situation in Eritrea hasn’t improved and that it is guilty of major human rights violations, including arbitrary killings, disappearances and torture by security forces.
There are 26,801 Eritrean asylum seekers in Israel. According to a state comptroller’s report, only 10 have received refugee status, while thousands of Eritrean asylum applications have been rejected.
As of the end of 2017, there were 7,500 Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel, not counting children, according to the Population, Immigration and Border Authority. Of these, about 2,500 are from Sudan’s Darfur region.
Of the asylum applications these Darfuris have submitted over the last decade, five have been rejected and one was approved. The rest have been awaiting an answer for years, and the High Court of Justice has criticized the state’s foot-dragging on this issue.
A long-running civil war in Darfur killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions in what has been termed a genocide. But even after the war ended in 2014, Sudanese security forces continue to abuse Darfuris.