Netanyahu Vows to Reopen Detention Facilities for Asylum Seekers After Israel Tells Court Deportation No Longer an Option

Israel told the top court earlier it will stop holding deportation hearings and any previous decisions on deportations have now been nullified

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a ceremony for the signing of a housing agreement in Sderot, Israel April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

Israel has vowed to reopen its detention facilities for asylum seekers after admitting in court on Tuesday that there is currently no possibility to forcibly deport them.

A statement released by the Prime Minister's Office after the dramatic announcement to the High Court of Justice said that "after the third countries refused to accept the infiltrators under the conditions Israel demanded, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Arye Dery agreed to immediately reopen the detention facilities for the infiltrators, move to advance new legislation [to circumnavigate High Court rulings] and promote additional measures to solve the problem."

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The statement likely refers to the Holot detention facility in the Negev Desert in southern Israel and the nearby Saharonim Prison. Holot, which held thousands of asylum-seeking Eritrean and Sudanese men since it first opened in 2013, was officially shut down on March 14 while Saharonim was shut in early April.

Asylum seekers who aren't willing to leave Israel within two months cannot currently be jailed, as per a decision made by the High Court last August. 

Asylum seekers protest against deportation in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018. Israel considers the vast majority of the nearly 40,000 migrants to be job seekers and says it has no legal obligation to keep them. The Africans, nearly all from dictatorial Eritrea and war-torn Sudan, say they fled for their lives and face renewed danger if they return. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Ariel Schalit/AP

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan wrote on Twitter that there is "no point in reopening Holot without advancing the legislation" that allows lawmakers to reinstate laws overturned by Israel's top court. With this legislation, Erdan wrote, Israel will be able to "re-legislate the laws that allowed Holot to serve as a deterrent for infiltrators and pushed them to leave the country. Reopening the facility without the legislation will only set up a hotel for infiltrators."

The Prime Minister's Office released a statement saying that the state would stop holding pre-deportation hearings for the asylum seekers and that any previous decisions on the matter are now nullified.

A coalition of human rights groups petitioned the High Court of Justice last month to demand that those who face deportation be allowed to see the agreements Israel allegedly signed with Rwanda or Uganda, the countries to which it planned to deport them. Both African nations deny the existence of such deals.

At pre-deportation hearings, a state representative tells asylum seekers that they must leave for “a safe third country under the agreements Israel has with both countries,” even though the agreement with Rwanda collapsed months ago and efforts to negotiate a revised agreement with Uganda have failed.

Israel said on Tuesday that those who had received a deportation date would now have their status renewed every sixty days, as was the case before the attempt to expel them.

“Israel will continue to act on the issue of the infiltrators,” said the statement, referencing the term the government uses to describe asylum seekers, “including attempts to encourage them to leave on their own accord or relocating them involuntarily, in accordance with the law. Israel’s immigration officials will continue to refer infiltrators to the ‘voluntary departure’ office, allowing them to relocate to a third country, but without conditioning the renewal of their legal status of their willingness to leave to a third country.”

Eighteen Jewish members of the U.S. Congress sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, urging him to reconsider the deal his government reached but then canceled with the United Nations at the beginning of the month regarding the deportation of African asylum seekers.

The signatories of the letter, all Democrats, said they were “heartened” by the agreement and “disappointed” by Netanyahu’s swift decision to retract it on April 3 following strong pressure from the right wing in Israel.

According to the UN deal, Israel would have sent as many as 16,500 asylum seekers to be resettled in Western countries while allowing a similar number to remain in Israel until a better solution is found.

Israel negotiated the UN agreement following the collapse of a prior arrangement it reportedly had with Rwanda to deport thousands of asylum seekers there.

After he canceled the UN deal, Netanyahu signaled that he is once again examining ways of forcibly deporting asylum seekers to an unspecified “third country” in Africa – most likely Uganda. But a special envoy sent there to negotiate a deal returned last week without signing any sort of agreement with the country.

There are approximately 39,000 Eritrean and Sudanese citizens now in Israel. According to Population and Immigration Authority figures, over the past three and a half years, some 1,750 people have left Israel for Uganda. In 2015, 485 asylum seekers left, in 2016, 506 people left and in 2017, the figure was 630. So far this year, 128 people have left.