Israel's Top Court Slams Asylum Seeker Deportation Plan: 'Rwanda Denies Deal, What Legal Recourse Will Deportees Have?'

Chief justice ask state to check deal’s security states, suspend deportations until it responds to petitions

March against Israel's plans to deport African asylum seekers, from Holot to Saharonim Prison in the Negev, February 22, 2018.
Meged Gozani

Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer said Monday that the fact that the states involved deny having an agreement to accept asylum seekers who consent to voluntary departure from Israel is liable to create a problem for the deportees. In a hearing on a petition against the expulsions Monday, Melcer said such an agreement was necessary to protect the asylum seekers in the countries to which they will be expelled. 

“If there is any violation, they can turn to the courts there and present the agreement. When they say here that there is no agreement, what will they show,” Melcer asked the representative of the state prosecution.

Melcer did not name the country to which he alluded, but noted that its “deputy foreign minister” had denied the agreement. In late January, Rwandan Deputy Foreign Minister Olivier Nduhungirehe said his country “didn’t sign or agree on a deal” about “relocating African migrants.” Earlier, Ugandan Foreign Minister Henry Oryem Okello told the country’s Daily Monitor website that Uganda also had no such deal with Israel.

Melcer was responding to claims by lawyers Eitay Mack and Avigdor Feldman, who submitted the petitions, that Uganda and Rwanda denied having signed a deal with Israel. The prosecution refused to address the issue, saying the agreement was classified as confidential on the orders of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, due to possible damage to Israel’s foreign relations. 

Information sheets distributed to asylum seekers who were told to leave for Rwanda promised that once there, they would receive “a residence permit which will allow you to work and ensure you are not repatriated to your country of origin.” Asylum seekers who were deported told Haaretz that upon landing in Rwanda and Uganda their Israeli documents were confiscated. They said they had trouble finding work and housing and were not recognized as refugees.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut said the security status of the new agreement, signed late last year, must be checked and asked the prosecution to include the answer in its response to the petition. The prosecution requested two weeks amend its response. The court agreed and suggested that the state suspend its deportation proceedings during this time. 

Feldman told the court he was born in Israel in 1948 and never imagined that the country would throw out 40,000 people. “And to where?” he asked. “We don’t have the means to know what happens to the deportees after they disembark from the plane. But the deportees know. Their money is taken. They get put in a locked-down hostel and then sent to Rwanda. Among them are asylum seekers, protected by international law. The Refugee Convention [in 1951] was created because of us [Jewish refugees], because of World War II, because people had to flee. 

“Israel would expel 40,000 people without checking how long they’ve been in the country; whether they’re working or studying, or making even the slightest effort to absorb them rather than see them as a ‘cancer.’ This expulsion hurts me like a burning flame.”

Author and recent Israel Prize laureate David Grossman was in court to support the petitioners. Outside the courtroom, Grossman noted that 40 years ago, an Israeli captain threw a black stowaway overboard off the coast of Mozambique and all of Israel was in uproar. “Now we’re going to throw 40,000 people into the water, to the sharks,” Grossman said. “My grandmother knocked on the doors of this country, and everybody has a grandfather or great-grandfather who knocked on doors and nobody would open them. And now we’re turning our backs, behaving brutally, even cruelly. Turning our backs actually says there was logic to the way our forefathers were treated.” 

Grossman said there is now an opportunity to reverse matters “and to see the asylum seekers as human beings. This could be a great opportunity, or a great disappointment,” he said.