Israel's Deportation Program Brings Cruelty to Asylum Seekers to New Heights

The threat to lock up asylum seekers who Israel wants to deport for an undetermined period constitutes abuse of a helpless population and spits in the face of the High Court.

Eliahu Hershkovitz

The Population and Immigration Authority has begun over the past few days to inform asylum seekers held at the Holot detention facility that if they refuse to leave the country within two weeks for Uganda or Rwanda, they will be incarcerated at Saharonim Prison for an indeterminate period. This step marks the beginning of the Interior Ministry’s new deportation program, which brings to new heights the ongoing cruelty to asylum seekers, while breaking international law and principles set down by High Court of Justice rulings.

According to the new deportation policy, Israel forces asylum seekers – to whom group protection applies and therefore they may not be deported, based on the principle of non-refoulement – to leave to third countries (Rwanda or Uganda), in which their basic rights, including guarantees of their safety and liberty, are not insured.

A report by human rights organizations published in March revealed that there is real concern for the welfare and safety of the approximately 9,000 asylum seekers who have left Israel so far under the “voluntary departure” program. According to the report, some of those who have “left voluntarily” have had to return to the lawless regions they had fled, where they have been imprisoned and tortured.

In one of the hearings of the High Court – which twice struck down amendments to the law on illegal entry to Israel, rejecting the principle that a person can be incarcerated without due process – the state denied the claim that the intent behind the detention facilities was to break the spirit of the asylum seekers so they would leave the country.

The new deportation plan lets the cat out of the bag. The state intends to exert unlimited pressure on the asylum seekers to send them on their way, without caring what happens to them and flouting international law, Israel’s Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty, and refugee treaties to which Israel is a signatory.

The threat to lock up asylum seekers who Israel wants to deport at Saharonim Prison for an undetermined period not only constitutes abuse, both morally and legally, of a helpless population; it also spits in the face of the High Court and callously ignores its rulings.

About six weeks ago, the Be’er Sheva District Court denied a petition by human rights groups against the deportation and incarceration of asylum seekers who refuse to leave the country. Judge Eliahu Bitan ruled that the petition was premature because no one had yet been incarcerated. In light of the increasing pressure on asylum seekers and the state’s determination to adhere to its illegal policy, the courts could be the last barrier to a fundamental breach of the rule of law, human rights and democracy.

But even before it comes to that, Interior Minister Silvan Shalom and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein can stop the persecution and abuse of the asylum seekers.