Israel's Deputy Attorney General Orders Review of Eritrean Applications for Asylum

Her decision follows last month’s ruling by a Jerusalem court that desertion from the Eritrean army may serve as a basis for refugee status

Asylum seekers protest against deportation in Tel Aviv on February 24, 2018.
Ariel Schalit/AP

Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber instructed the Population and Immigration Authority Thursday to reexamine the cases of Eritreans held in Saharonim Prison whose applications for refugee status have been denied.

Her decision follows last month’s ruling by a Jerusalem court that desertion from the Eritrean army may serve as a basis for refugee status.

Zilber ordered the immediate release of anyone whose case is found to resemble that of the appellant in the ruling. Zilber’s decision has the approval of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit.

The authority began the reexamination process on Thursday and will conclude it by March 29. Two hundred eighty asylum seekers are currently in detention in Saharonim, and those who qualify may be released immediately.

“The review shall be conducted as swiftly as possible, so that infiltrators who can be released from custody are not detained further. A decision regarding release will be made upon the completion of the review of each individual case,” said a Justice Ministry document explaining the decision. However, the ministry also plans to appeal the ruling in order to avoid having to reopen thousands of applications.

The Justice Ministry says it instructed the Population Authority to evaluate whether each case “resembles” that of the appellant in last month’s ruling, and if so, to release him from Saharonim. However, it is not entirely clear what “resembles” means.

The asylum seeker who filed the original appeal is 29 years old. He was drafted into the Eritrean army at 17 and was only granted leave to see his family two years later. He did not return from leave, but instead hid in his village. A year later tried to flee Eritrea but was arrested and imprisoned for two years. He was held in an underground cell for the first five months of his imprionment and then subjected to forced labor for almost a year. After that, he finally escaped and made his way to Israel.

Attorneys Elad Cahana and Anat Ben-Dor from Tel Aviv University’s Refugee Rights Clinic, who filed the appeal that led to the ruling, called on the Justice and Interior ministries to reopen the thousands of refugee applications that were turned down on the basis of the Population Authority’s policy of not recognizing desertion from the Eritrean army as a reason for refugee status.

The attorneys also called for the halt in the deportation of anyone whose application was turned down for this reason. “The Interior Ministry unlawfully denied thousands of asylum applications,” said Cahana. “Release from prison is a necessary but insufficient step. Israel must conduct a fair review of their applications and cancel the deportation orders.”

It is not yet known whether asylum seekers with cases similar to the original appellant will be granted refugee status or have their deportation orders canceled. It is also unclear how this decision will affect the fates of the thousands of Eritreans whose asylum applications were turned down for this reason but are not being held in Saharonim. Some have already had a pre-deportation hearing and will be forced to leave Israel in April if their visa was not renewed.

The Justice Ministry will hold meetings on these questions next week.

On Saturday, an anti-deportation rally will be held in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. The slogan of the event will be, “Israel is stopping the deportation – and supports south Tel Aviv.” Asylum seekers, residents of the city’s southern neighborhoods and public figures are expected to speak. “Each day that people who deserve refugee status sit in prison is a scandal,” said a representative for the nonprofit organization Hotline for Refugees and Migrants. “The public and legal effort is revealing how full of holes the deportation plan is. Now, more than ever, we have to keep saying that deportation is not a solution, especially when the process is shrouded in secrecy.”

In last month’s ruling, the Jerusalem Appeals Court found that the Eritrean asylum seeker had demonstrated a “well-founded fear of persecution due to a political view ascribed to him by the authorities in his country as a result of his desertion from military service.” He had argued that due to his desertion, the authorities viewed him as a political opponent of the regime. The state argued that the asylum seeker had the burden to prove that he could personally expect to be subject to persecution due to his presumed political views. The Population and Immigration Authority maintained that he did not provide sufficient proof of this.

The judge ruled that the Population Authority did not faithfully do its job in this instance because it failed to examine the asylum seeker’s claims. It ordered that the man be granted refugee status.