Israeli Interior Minister Vows to Fight Landmark Ruling in Favor of Eritrean Asylum-seekers

Jerusalem tribunal’s decision that Eritreans in Israel cannot be denied refugee status over desertion from their home country's army means ‘endless trouble,’ says Minister Arye Dery.

2014 | Southern Israel.
Asylum seekers signal their solidarity with hundreds of their fellow migrants through the fence of the Holot detention facility.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Interior Minister Arye Dery said Monday he had ordered an immediate appeal against the Jerusalem custody tribunal’s ruling that Eritrean asylum seekers who are deserters from the Eritrean army can be recognized as refugees.

Dery called the ruling “unfortunate” and “endless trouble.”

Attorney Elad Azar, who serves as the judge of the custody tribunal, on Sunday overturned an Interior Ministry legal opinion that desertion from the Eritrean army is not a reason to receive refugee status. Based on that opinion, the ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority has rejected thousands of applications for refugee status from Eritreans in Israel.

Azar ruled that the state cannot refuse to apply the Refugee Convention on a certain group of asylum seekers with the same claims merely because they are a large group. He wrote that in Eritrea, desertion is considered a political act to be severely punished, and can justify recognition of refugee status because it “can rise to the level of persecution according to the interpretation given in Israel to the Refugee Convention.”

Dery said the tribunal’s ruling was “a distortion of the state’s position, and the statement that Israel is not meeting its obligations to the Refugee Convention is serious and untrue, and I certainly cannot come to terms with it.”

Dery added: “The facts on the ground are different and every application is examined individually, according to all the criteria, and in suitable cases the status of refugee is granted.”

Dery said the ministry’s legal opinion on desertion had been approved by the previous attorney general, adding that contravening it would have “significant implications across the board that could bring tens of thousands of infiltrators back here.” Dery said European countries that granted refugee status “are having to deal with the consequences and to check every application thoroughly.”

Dery added that he would not let go of the matter “until reason wins and is accepted in the courts as well.”

Test case

The appeal to the custody tribunal was filed about two years ago by the Tel Aviv University’s program on refugee rights and the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, in the name of an Eritrean asylum seeker. His request for asylum was based on his desertion from the Eritrean army and his illegal exit from his country. It was rejected in an expedited process by the chairman of the interior minister’s advisory committee on refugees, without having been discussed by the committee itself.

The tribunal ordered the advisory committee to re-examine the application without reference to the Interior Ministry’s legal opinion.

The Population and Immigration Authority can now appeal the tribunal’s decision to the district court.

In response to the appeal, the state claimed that “implications across the board,” which would mean the recognition of tens of thousands of refugees if the opinion was struck down, should be taken into consideration.