Too Soon to Say if Eritrean Asylum Seekers Can Be Sent Back Home, Say Israeli Officials

Although Eritrea and Ethiopia struck a surprise peace agreement in July, Israel is closely monitoring the situation and seeing how other countries react before deciding whether to expel anyone

Eritreans protesting outside the Rwandan Embassy in Herzliya, January 2018, over forced deportations to the African state.
Meged Gozani

It is too soon to say whether Eritrean asylum seekers in Israel can be expelled to their homeland, even though Eritrea recently made peace with Ethiopia and has reportedly abolished its limitless military draft, a government legal expert told lawmakers on Wednesday.

Recent developments indicate that change may come to Eritrea but it’s still early days, the legal counsel to the National Security Council told the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee.

The test will be whether the circumstances enable asylum seekers to return safely to Eritrea under international law, he added. “I think it’s still premature, because these are things that are just happening,” he said.

The representative of the Foreign Ministry’s Africa desk told the Knesset panel that after years of tensions and war, the developments between Ethiopia and Eritrea are dramatic and historic, but it’s still an ongoing process.

“Things take time,” he said. “We are keeping track of developments day by day, but it is too soon to reach conclusions. We can’t know how long it will take – but it could take time.”

The interior committee was examining the policy of not expelling asylum seekers back to Eritrea. But as committee Chairman MK Yoav Kish (Likud) said at the start of the discussion, “It is impossible to ignore the change in policy in Eritrea.” He called the peace agreement signed by Eritrea and Ethiopia this month “dramatic and surprising.”

On Tuesday, Haaretz reported that Israel had ended negotiations with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees over its plan for Western countries take about half of the African asylum seekers in Israel, with Israel absorbing the rest. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had announced that plan back in April, but immediately flip-flopped after facing fierce criticism from within his Likud party.

Interior Minister Arye Dery informed MK Mossi Raz (Meretz) earlier this month that Israel is currently exploring various options and has held preliminary talks with “relevant parties,” but that the policy of not expelling asylum seekers back to their homelands remains in force.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said Tuesday that if Eritrea abolishes its indefinite military service – which has been policy since the war broke out with Ethiopia – Israel would look to send the Eritrean asylum seekers home without delay. This would be a good thing for the residents of south Tel Aviv, where a lot of African refugees are living, she noted. Addressing Habayit Hayehudi party members, she said the government was closely monitoring developments between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

During the 20-year battle between the two African states, some 80,000 people are estimated to have been killed. “There is no doubt that the peace agreement accelerates our examination of the issue,” an Interior Ministry official told Haaretz. “If there is peace, the main reason why Eritreans demand asylum – desertion and draft-dodging – will become less relevant. We are waiting to see how other countries react,” the source said.

Several Israeli organizations that help asylum seekers warned recently that the 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,” they stated.

The U.S. State Department has also said the situation in Eritrea has not improved, and that significant human rights violations continue by the security forces, including arbitrary killings, abductions and torture.

There are currently 26,081 Eritrean refugees in Israel, with only 10 receiving asylum status, according to the state comptroller. Thousands of requests have been rejected.

According to the Israeli immigration authorities, Israel is also housing 7,500 Sudanese refugees (a figure that does not include children). That figure includes Darfurians, of whom 2,500 have applied for asylum. So far, five requests have been rejected, one approved and the rest are still awaiting an answer.

The Darfurians were fleeing genocide: hundreds of thousands were killed and millions uprooted during the war in Darfur, with civilians vulnerable to attack by the Sudanese security forces. In Israel, the High Court of Justice has criticized the state for its sluggish handling of the Darfurian matter.