Asylum Seekers Deported From Israel Suffered 'Abuse and Torture,' UN Refugee Agency Says

The UN refugee agency calls on Israel to stop deportation campaign targeting asylum seekers, offers help in coming up with 'alternative solutions'

Asylum seekers at the Holot detention facility in southern Israel, December 2016.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Multiple African asylum seekers who were forcefully deported from Israel suffered abuse, detention and torture after they were made to take hazardous journeys when they were sent away from the Jewish state, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said in a rare statement released Tuesday.

The UN refugee agency's statement, which quoted a speech by agency spokesperson William Spindler, noted that the agency conducted research into the subject and highlighted 80 individual cases of people who risked their lives after they were relocated by Israel and then had to make hazardous journeys to Europe through Libya.

According to the world body, its staff conducted interviews with the asylum seekers in question to better understand their plight. "Feeling they had no other choice, they travelled many hundreds of kilometers through conflict zones in South Sudan, Sudan and Libya after being relocated by Israel," the statement recounted the difficult experiences of the asylum seekers as they were told to UN staff who interviewed them in Italy.

The interviews took place between November 2015 and December 2017 in reception centers and informal encampments around Rome. All the interviewees are adult men, and some are reported to have family members still living in Israel. They all came into the Jewish state via the Sinai area, and the UN statement said that "in every case they reported torture, mistreatment and extortion before reaching Israel."  

The statement went on to say that the men suffered "abuse, torture and extortion before risking their lives once again by crossing the Mediterranean to Italy" after Israel had sent them away.

The refugees also reportedly told UN staff that they were transferred from Israel to countries in Africa with very little money to support them later on their way, and that when they arrived they faced minimal accommodation and limited aid. "They reported feeling unsafe many experienced extortion and detention," the statement stressed.  

The statement also lamented the fact that while Israel has become a temporary shelter for tens of thousands of asylum seekers, "since Israel took over refugee status determination from UNHRC in 2009, only ten Eritreans and one Sudanese have been recognized as refugees."

The agency called on Israel to halt its planned deportation of thousands of asylum seekers, namely those who fled to Israel from Eritrea and Sudan and are now slated to be sent back to the African continent.

The UNHCR "is seriously concerned over Israel's plans announced on January 1st to forcibly relocate Eritreans and Sudanese to countries in Africa or have them face indefinite detention," the statement said. "At a time when UNHCR and partners in the international community are engaged in emergency evacuations from Libya, forced relocation to countries that do not offer effective protection and the onward movement of these people to Libya and Europe is particularly worrisome."

The agency extended an offer to help Israel in finding other possible ways to handle the situation, saying that it "stands ready to work with Israel to find alternative solutions for the protection needs of asylum seekers, in line with international standards. This includes resettlement out of Israel, as has happened previously."

Last week, Israel's Population, Immigration and Border Authority announced that it was launching its campaign to begin ridding Israel of its African asylum seekers, declaring that many Eritrean and Sudanese nationals will have to leave the country within the coming months or be incarcerated indefinitely.

There are some 35,000 Eritrean and Sudanese natives living in Israel, who have another 5,000 children who were born here. The overwhelming majority of the adults have temporary visas that they must renew every three months. The next time many of them come to renew their visas, they will be told it is the last renewal and that they will have to leave before the visa expires. The authority will propose that they either return to their countries of origin, or leave for Uganda or Rwanda.