Hundreds of Asylum Seekers Go on Hunger Strike as Israel Begins Jailing Those Refusing Deportation

Israel begins its deportation plan, imprisoning for first time Eritreans who refused to leave the country

Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior
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Eritrean migrants wear chains to mimic slaves at a demonstration against Israel's planned expulsion of asylum seekers, Jerusalem, January 17, 2018.
Eritrean migrants wear chains to mimic slaves at a demonstration against Israel's planned expulsion of asylum seekers, Jerusalem, January 17, 2018.Credit: Oded Balilty/AP
Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior

All asylum seekers at the Holot detention facility began a hunger strike on Tuesday night to protest the imprisonment earlier in the day of seven Eritreans who refused to leave Israel.

It was the first time asylum seekers have been jailed for refusing to leave.

>> Explained: Israel's mass deportation of asylum seekers >>

The seven Eritreans who were summoned for pre-deportation hearings Tuesday morning were taken to Saharonim Prison immediately afterward, apparently due to fear they would flee. They had previously been held at the Holot open detention facility and were among the first to receive deportation notices a month ago. Two of them survived torture in Sinai en route here, but their asylum requests were denied.

Because they refused to leave Israel for either Eritrea or Rwanda, they will be held at Saharonim indefinitely unless they change their minds, in line with new rules issued by the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority.

“These are people who underwent very severe torture,” said Tal Steiner, head of the legal department at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants. “Upon meeting them, it was clear how much they had suffered and how vulnerable they were.”

Two weeks ago, her organization asked the Interior Ministry not to deport or imprison these asylum seekers, but received no answer. Moreover, during the pre-deportation hearing at Holot, conducted by ministry officials, “We, as their attorneys, weren’t allowed to speak by phone with the Interior Ministry officials, and it seems their difficult personal circumstances weren’t considered at all. We fear greatly for their wellbeing in prison. These are people who need assistance and rehabilitation, not imprisonment and deportation.”

The hotline will appeal their imprisonment, Steiner said.

In response, asylum seekers at Holot launched a hunger strike. “We don’t want to eat at all – not tomorrow, not the next day – because they’ve taken these people to jail,” said Abdat, an Eritrean who has been held at Holot for 10 months. “Not one person is eating. They tell us, ‘It’s a pity to throw the food away.’ We say lives are also being thrown away.”

To date, the immigration authority has sent deportation notices to more than 100 of the approximately 900 asylum seekers at Holot. The notices warn that if they don’t agree to leave, they face indefinite detention at Saharonim. Under a cabinet decision, Holot itself is slated to be closed in another three weeks, four years after it opened.

The authority’s new rules state that Eritreans and Sudanese who didn’t file asylum requests by the end of 2017, or whose asylum requests were rejected, can be deported to a third country. After receiving deportation notices, they have one month to decide if they want to leave, and if not, they can be jailed indefinitely.

The notices don’t name the third country, but orally, the asylum seekers are told it’s Rwanda.

The authority began sending deportation notices to inmates of Holot a month ago, and two weeks ago, it began sending them to Eritreans and Sudanese who aren’t in Holot. Whenever an asylum seeker eligible for deportation goes to the authority’s offices to renew his visa, he is given a deportation notice along with a visa for another two months and warned that this will be his last visa. He is also scheduled for a pre-deportation hearing at which he can try to make a case for remaining.

Women, children, fathers of minor children and victims of slavery or human trafficking currently aren’t being deported. Neither are people who filed asylum requests before the end of 2017 but haven’t yet received an answer.

There are currently about 40,000 Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel, including some 5,000 children born here. Only about 15,000 had filed asylum requests by December 31, and of these, 8,000 are still awaiting answers. Another 2,000 filed asylum requests this year.

So far, only 10 Eritreans and one Sudanese have been granted asylum – a far lower rate than in other Western countries.

Of these 40,000 Eritreans and Sudanese, between 15,000 and 20,000 are slated for deportation. The government wants to deport 7,200 a year – double the number deported in previous years.

But the Israel Prison Service has warned that it can’t hold thousands of asylum seekers who refuse to leave. It has room for at most about 1,000.

The deportation notices tell asylum seekers they will be sent to an unnamed “safe third country which will absorb you and give you a residency permit that will let you work.” The documents also promise that the third country won’t deport them to their homelands.

Israel will provide travel documents, pay for their plane ticket and give them $3,500 in cash when they board the plane, the notices say. When they land, the asylum seekers will be met by officials of the third country “who will help you during your first days.”

Asylum seekers slated for deportation are given an initial interview. They then have a month to decide whether to leave voluntarily. If they refuse, they are given a hearing with a population authority official at which they can argue that they should be allowed to stay. Following that hearing, the official can order them jailed immediately if he decides “there are no real grounds for his refusal,” authority regulations state.

Asylum seekers who have previously left Israel for Rwanda or Uganda say that contrary to the claims made in the deportation notices, these countries provided no protection and no basic rights. Many embarked on dangerous journeys in an effort to find safer places to live. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has said it knows of only nine asylum seekers who left Israel for Rwanda and actually stayed there.

In video interviews with Haaretz three weeks ago, several asylum seekers deported to Rwanda said they’re living in the street, have no jobs and are barely surviving. They said their documents were confiscated immediately after they arrived, and some were later arrested and jailed because they lacked documents. They also said they have been pressured to let smugglers take them over the border into Uganda.

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