Israel’s Tragic Treatment of Asylum Seekers Must Be Stopped

Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar wants to deport asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea, but we should be taking our obligations toward them far more seriously.

Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s announcement Wednesday of a mass-deportation campaign to expel Eritrean and Sudanese refugees exacerbates Israel’s already problematic policy of shrugging off its obligations toward asylum seekers.

Until now, Israel had provided collective protection to asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan and did not deport them, knowing that such deportation would be a gross violation of the principle of non-refoulement . This is acknowledged by the High Court of Justice as being fixed in international law, as well as Israeli constitutional law, and determines that one must not deport people to any location where their lives or liberty are endangered.

The existing solution might have been acceptable had it been adopted honestly and by adding basic social rights, the right to work and access to the health system. But Israel exploited the fact that it had extended collective protection and neglected to investigate the status of individual asylum seekers in order to deny them refugee status.

While around the world a high percentage of asylum seekers from Eritrea are recognized as refugees, Israel has so far done virtually nothing to look into their status.

Without such an investigation, it’s possible to have it both ways. On the one hand, to refrain from deporting them, thereby avoiding the risk of grossly violating internationally recognized obligations; on the other, to generate incitement against them, deny that they are refugees, and not extend them any social rights.

Several shameful layers have been added to this: Jailing asylum seekers under the rubric of the amendment to the infamously named Infiltration Law, which allows their imprisonment for at least three years without trial; the procedure that allows jailing where there is a suspicion of criminal acts, even absent of conviction; and getting imprisoned asylum seekers and migrant workers to sign off on “voluntary” deportation (the other option being indefinite imprisonment).

Sa’ar’s announcement shows the government’s intent to take an even harder line than before. The stated intention of taking steps against those who are not leaving Israel, such as enforcing the law banning their employment and encouraging “voluntary” deportation, can be expected to remove the last vestiges of protection that asylum seekers are still receiving here.

All of these are gross violations of Israel’s legal and moral obligations. According to the directives of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, asylum seekers from Eritrea are, for the most part, persecuted according to the convention on refugees - the punishment for desertion or evading military service in Eritrea (liable to include torture or even execution without trial) meets the criteria of persecution as defined by the convention. Unlike Israel, and as mentioned in the directives, military service in Eritrea is indefinite and is in fact nothing more than exploitation of enlisted personnel for the purpose of slave labor.

As for deportation to a third country, the convention states that refugees cannot be deported unless they represent a threat to national security or public order. Even those who haven’t been designated as refugees cannot, according to the non-refoulement principle, be deported to someplace where their life or liberty is at risk. Moving them to a third country is forbidden unless there are clear guarantees that the third country will protect them, and not in turn deport them to someplace where their life is endangered.

It is time to stop relating to asylum seekers as people we need to get rid of, and take Israel’s obligations seriously. The fact that Israel is relating to them as criminals who must be expelled is both tragic and ironic.

Moti Milrod