Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked has turned down a request by an Eritrean refugee for asylum in Israel – only the second time such a decision has been made against advice of the committee in charge of asylum recommendations to the interior minister.
Shaked said she had rejected the application because there were contradictions in the man’s statements and that the law “almost completely” bans her from granting status to foreigners in Israel. She added that there was no risk that the man would be deported to his country of origin at this time and thus he would not be in danger.
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The committee also saw the contradictions in the testimony of the man, Yonas, but most of the members believed he should be given the benefit of the doubt because of physical injuries he had sustained. Yonas told the committee that in 2008, he was arrested in Eritrea after he had planned to evade military service and leave the country. He said he had been kept underground and had been subjected from violence during his incarceration, causing him to lose vision in one eye.
His story of how he lost his eye varied from interview to interview, the committee said. However, most of the members concluded that “even if the version he told of the precise way he had been injured was not uniform, and because there is no doubt that the applicant is blind in one eye and that in both versions of his story he claims the injury occurred during his military service after he was imprisoned, the doubt should be in his favor and this should be seen as an injury during his military service whether as an act of torture or during his attempt to flee.”
However, the minority opinion of the Justice Ministry’s representative on the committee was that because of the different versions he gave, the entire story could not be believed.
Former Interior Minister Arye Dery also rejected Yonas’ request for asylum in May of last year, when he accepted the opinion of the Justice Ministry representative on the committee that the application be denied. In June of this year, the Entry to Israel Law Tribunal that oversees appeals in such cases ruled that the interior minister must revisit the decision because Dery had given no reason for his rejection. Tribunal head Rachel Shrem Paldor noted that despite the different versions Yonas had given, “his story in general remained consistent.”
Shaked, who replaced Dery as interior minister, said there was no reason to instruct her to reexamine the decision because the law did not apply to interior ministers’ decisions based on the Entry to Israel Law. However, Shaked said that because the Interior Ministry’s representatives had agreed that she should present her reasons, she would respect the decision and do so.
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“Given that the Knesset sought to restrict, if not entirely abolish, the authority of the interior minister to grant status to an illegal resident, I can only go against this if I have found a very good reason to determine that following the law would be extremely unreasonable in an individual case,” Shaked wrote.
Shaked wrote she had concluded that rejecting Yonas’ request was not unreasonable as long as he was not deported to a destination where his life was in danger because “there is no intention at the moment to forcibly deport the applicant to Eritrea.” Responding to Shaked’s argument in the appeals tribunal in Jerusalem, Yonas’ lawyer, Inbal Barel, said that Shaked had wrongly interpreted the law.
Shaked also said she did not believe Yonas’ claim that the Eritrean regime would persecute him because of his political opinions. This can be seen, she wrote, because “in both stories he was drafted into the army to basic training after he was arrested. It is unlikely that the Eritrean government would draft a person into the army who is perceived as a political opponent. The reasonable explanation is that even if he was arrested and punished, which is very doubtful, this happened in a disciplinary-administrative context and not a political one.”
Yonas’ lawyer, Barel, who is director of the legal department of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, responded: “Beyond the enormous injustice to Yonas, Shaked is ignoring Israel’s obligation to manage a fair asylum system. Her decision goes against the already strict criteria set by the Interior Ministry itself to recognize Eritrean citizens as refugees, and she is breaking international law and the principles of the Refugee Convention, to which Israel is a signatory. The person who decides the fate of asylum seekers in Israel should show basic familiarity with refugee laws and basic responsibility for people who have fled for their lives and seek protection.”
According to information Haaretz obtained through the Freedom of Information Law, Yonas’ case is one of only two in recent years in which the interior minister sought to overturn a decision by the advisory committee on asylum applications.
The last time a case was rejected was that of a woman refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who had been raped. Most of the committee members recommended to then-Interior Minister Dery that she be given asylum because returning her to the Congo would endanger her life.
The refugee’s attorney, Tomer Warsha, said: “The fact that then-Minister Dery twice rejected recommendations for political asylum only proves the extreme difficulties asylum seekers face in Israel, which contravene the Refugee Convention. We will act to reverse this injustice through the courts.”
Shaked said: “While the rule must be strictly observed that a person not be sent to a place where his life is in danger, from there to breaking the framework set by the Knesset is a very long way and I have no intention of doing this. In any case, all the experts agreed that there were flaws in the applicant’s story and by reading the material it’s clear that his contradictory versions are not to be believed. I therefore found no justification to make an exception in this case.