UN Refugee Envoy: Eritreans Trapped at Israel-Egypt Border Must Be Allowed In

William Tall tells Haaretz: Israel has to 'step up to its responsibilities.'

The envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel has called on Israel to grant immediate entry to a group of 21 Eritrean refugees that has been trapped between the fences on the Israeli-Egyptian border for a week. In an interview to Haaretz last night William Tall called on Israel to "step up to its responsibilities," saying that it could not "simply shut the door" and must allow them in and process their claims for asylum.

"The most worrying thing to me is the discussion of pushing them back into Egypt, which is highly irresponsible, because if they go back to Egypt there is a high risk these people will fall in the hands of human smugglers, and it is well known, it is all documented, that many of these people have been abused, there are cases of torture or rape, and if you send them back you are sending them to a situation with a very high degree of insecurity," Tall said.

Continuing, Tall said that Israel and the Israel Defense Forces have said that they have stopped the policy of "hot returns," and that not allowing the refugees between the fences is "basically the same thing."

"If you look at [former Supreme Court President Judge Dorit] Beinisch's decision ... she says basically what we say; to return people to Egypt is not inconceivable, but it has to be done with certain guarantees, that their rights are respected, there's a framework, it's guaranteed that they won't be returned to smugglers," Tall said, noting that at present "there are no guarantees. The most disturbing thing to me is that many of these people may have spent months in smuggling camps in Egypt," where cases of rape and torture have been documented.

A group of activists that tried to bring food to the trapped Eritreans on Wednesday was turned back by soldiers who told them the area was declared a closed military zone. They left the food in hope the soldiers would deliver it to the group.

"We will not bring the Eritreans into Israeli territory, Interior Minister Eli Yishai declared on Wednesday.

"It is hardest for me, of anyone, to see these pictures, and return families to their homelands. It is hard for me to see these pictures, but I am the one who has to make the difficult decision, and if I have to choose between the good of the state, its civilians, and its security, [and the good of the families] I will choose that there be a fence, that they won't enter, and instead return to their country," Yishai continued.

In an interview with Army Radio Wednesday morning Yishai said: "Every day there are people stuck there. If there were no fence, and if we weren't steadfast, there would be a million people here. Don't ask what we would do with a million refugees here - excuse me, migrant workers."

The Israeli NGO We Are Refugees petitioned the High Court of Justice on Wednesday, demanding that Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Yishai explain why they have denied entry to the group, as well as food, water and medical care. The court is to discuss the petition this morning.

The petition states that Israel is violating international law as well as promises it has made with regard to the treatment of refugees.

The NGO said the petition was filed out of fear for the migrants' lives in their homeland.

The petition says Israel should decide the migrants' status after granting them entry. It also notes that human rights organizations and the UNHCR say the refugees are faced with life-threatening danger in Egypt and that they fear Egypt would deport them back to Eritrea without properly examining the danger to them there.

"The fact that for all this time the fate of these asylum seekers is under the effective control of the state of Israel requires the supplying of humanitarian aid, as us being the 'good Samaritan,'" the petition said. Were the Eritreans successful to cross the fence, the petition said, they would have been granted temporary protection by Israel's Immigration Authority because of the danger they are faced in their homeland.

Earlier on Wednesday, the NGO asked State Attorney Yehuda Weinstein to allow the trapped migrants to enter Israel and receive medical treatment, food and water.

The UN Refugee Agency said Tuesday that Israel violates the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees when dealing with the migrants on the border.

A number of Holocaust survivors protested in front of Jerusalem's Yad Vashem against Yishai and called on the IDF to admit the African migrants into the country.

On Wednesday, MK Dov Khenin asked Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to intervene immediately on behalf of the refugees, saying, "Do we want them to die at the fence?" Khenin said that the migrants were subjected to abuse while in Sinai and that one Eritrean woman had miscarried during her journey.

"A fence is not a magic solution," Khenin wrote in a message to Barak and Netanyahu, "It does not annul the obligation to examine the status of those knocking on it."