Israel Seeks to Deport Eritrean Asylum Seeker Who Visited Cuba

Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior
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An asylum seeker at the Holot detention center, April 2015.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior

In a highly unusual move, Israel is seeking to deport an Eritrean asylum seeker.

G. arrived in Israel three and a half years ago, but recently traveled to Cuba. When he returned three weeks ago, he was jailed upon arrival, due to “heavy suspicions” that he planned to stay here permanently.

He promptly filed an asylum request, but the state swiftly rejected it. On Monday, the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority sought to deport him even though Israeli policy is not to deport Eritreans, for fear that their lives will be at risk in their home country.

G. told his lawyer, Asaf Weitzen of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, that agency officials threatened to deport him to Eritrea. But the authority told Haaretz it had planned to send him back to Cuba via Russia, which sent him to Israel in July. Russian soldiers were waiting at Ben-Gurion International Airport to escort him on the flight.

The deportation was thwarted because Weitzen immediately appealed it to a Tel Aviv custody tribunal. The tribunal issued an injunction against the deportation before G. was put on the plane and will hold a hearing on the case tomorrow.

The Interior Ministry says it isn’t deporting G., but rather denying him entry. Therefore, it says, his situation is different from that of other Eritreans in Israel and there is no barrier to his involuntary departure.

But Weitzen argued that if G. is sent to either Russia or Cuba, those countries are liable to send him back to Eritrea.

“Therefore, he is entitled to obtain status in Israel under the principle of nonrefoulement,” Weitzen wrote in the appeal. “Even if he isn’t a refugee, careful consideration must be given to the possibility that he will face danger if he’s returned to Eritrea. Had there been such consideration, it would have resulted in the appellant being eligible for protection under the principle of non-refoulement.”

G. said he was drafted into Eritrea’s military in 2004. Two years later, he fled to Sudan, and then to Libya, where he was arrested and returned to Eritrea.

Upon his return, he was sentenced to four years of hard labor, and after finishing his sentence, he was sent back to the army. But in 2012, he ran away again, this time to Israel.

Late last year, however, he despaired of the difficulties facing asylum seekers in Israel and decided to leave. He said he gave a friend $2,500 with which to bribe someone at the Eritrean embassy to issue him a passport. Another friend helped him get a visa to enter Bolivia. Since he didn’t coordinate his departure with the immigration agency, he didn’t receive the $3,500 Israel gives Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers who leave voluntarily.

G. and three Eritrean friends bought tickets to Cuba via Russia. From Cuba, they planned to go to Bolivia. But in Cuba, instead of being allowed to proceed to Bolivia, he was arrested.

He spent a month in jail before intervention by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees resulted in his release. UNHCR’s representative in Cuba also granted him refugee status, concluding that his political views would endanger him if he returned to Eritrea.

Despite this, G. said, the Cuban immigration officials harassed him repeatedly. They frequently searched his person and his belongings, called him derogatory names and wouldn’t let him work. So he tried to go to the United States by sea, but was caught and returned to Cuba.

He then decided to fly to Germany and seek asylum there. But he was arrested at the Havana airport and deported to Russia, which sent him back to Israel.

G. said the Russians didn’t let him apply for asylum, and that the Cubans won’t let him back in the country.

Last Monday, the UNHCR representative in Israel, Walpurga Englbrecht, told the immigration agency that deporting G. to Cuba or Russia would violate the UN refugee convention, since there’s a real risk those states would send him back to Eritrea. Nevertheless, on Sunday the immigration authority told Weitzen that G.’s asylum request had been denied.

The agency’s letter to Weitzen didn’t set a deadline for G. to leave, but the next day, G. was told to “prepare to go home.” Englbrecht found out and told Weitzen that Israel planned to send G. to Russia that very night.

Yesterday, in its response to G.’s petition, the immigration agency argued that G. had been denied entry to Israel, “and therefore, he isn’t viewed like someone who’s residing here.” Consequently, there’s no legal bar to returning him to Cuba, it said.

Moreover, the brief said, in his asylum application, G. hid the fact that he had already received refugee status in Cuba. “This appears to be a clear case of ‘asylum shopping,’ given that even after the appellant received protection in Cuba, he tried to leave it for other countries, like the United States and Germany,” wrote Interior Ministry counsel Yoav Bar-Lev.

Bar-Lev also argued that nonrefoulement did not apply because the state isn’t sending G. to Eritrea, and there’s no reason to think he faces any danger in Cuba.