UN Refugee Agency Expresses Concern at Israel's Expulsion of African Asylum Seekers

UN High Commissioner for Refugees calls Israel's forced relocation of Eritreans and Sudanese to third African country controversial

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The entrance to the Holot detention facility for Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers, southern Israel, December 2016.
The entrance to the Holot detention facility for Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers, southern Israel, December 2016.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees expressed serious concern Friday over an announcement by two Israeli ministers that they would consider deporting asylum seekers to an African state or incarcerating them indefinitely.

A statement by the Geneva office of the UN refugee agency called Israel’s policy of expelling asylum seekers to Rwanda or Uganda against their will “controversial.” It noted that, from December 2013 through June 2017, some 4,000 Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel had left for Rwanda and Uganda.

“Due to the secrecy surrounding this policy and the lack of transparency concerning its implementation, it has been very difficult for UNHCR to follow up and systematically monitor the situation of people relocated to these African countries,” the commissioner stated. “UNHCR, however, is concerned that these persons have not found adequate safety or a durable solution to their plight and that many have subsequently attempted dangerous onward movements within Africa or to Europe.”

“As party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Israel has legal obligations to protect refugees and other persons in need of international protection,” the agency’s assistant high commissioner for protection, Volker Türk, said. “UNHCR and the international community have been assisting Israel to meet its international obligations, including by resettling or finding other durable solutions for 2,400 refugees who have departed from Israel in the last couple of years.”

According to the Israeli Interior Ministry, about 27,000 Eritreans and 8,000 Sudanese live in Israel. In August, the High Court of Justice ruled they could be deported to a third country, but those who refused to go could not be jailed for more than two months.

Interior Minister Arye Dery and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan announced Thursday that they would present a plan to the cabinet on Sunday to possibly close the Holot detention center within four months. Holot is an open facility in southern Israel that asylum seekers can leave, but they must be present for evening roll call and sleep there.

The ministers said if their plan is implemented, the asylum seekers would be given the option of expulsion from the country or incarceration for an unlimited period.

“The necessity of the Holot detention center should be examined, as should whether there is a need to eliminate it so it no longer constitutes a convenient alternative to any infiltrator,” the ministers’ statement said.

If the proposal is approved on Sunday, it would then be referred to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation.

The current arrangements relating to asylum seekers are enshrined in a temporary order that expires in one month. Dery and Erdan will be presenting the cabinet with a new draft order that, if approved, would apply for another three years. However, the section dealing with Holot would extend its operation for just three months. If it is not extended beyond then, it would be shut.