When Asylum-seekers Are Deported to the Torture Chamber

The State of Israel is committing a crime against these people, breaking international laws and moral principles.

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An archive photo from June 28, 2014 shows African asylum seekers at Nitzana Forest in Israel's south.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Former Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar took pride at the end of his term in the increasing flow of asylum-seekers leaving the country last year, following implementation of the “voluntary departure” program promoted by the Interior Ministry. But that “voluntary departure” soon turned out to be a program that endangers the lives and liberty of the asylum-seekers. At first the state does all its can to make their lives difficult until they choose to leave, and then it sends them to countries where there is no assurance of their safety.

A new report by human rights groups includes testimony of asylum-seekers who have been jailed and tortured on their return to Sudan in the framework of “voluntary departure,” as reported in yesterday’s Haaretz. Additional testimony in the report indicates that the third countries to which Israel sends asylum-seekers – Uganda and Rwanda – do not provide protection, legal status or assurance of safety for the new arrivals. Much of the testimony shows that the asylum-seekers decided to leave after finding themselves torn between two terrible choices – one, detention at the Holot or Saharonim facilities without trial for prolonged periods, or two, a life of persecution in their fractured homelands or in countries to which they come without rights or refugee status.

This testimony underscores the conclusions of a Haaretz investigative report a year ago – that Israel is sending people barred from deportation to other countries where they have no status or rights, and thus is shirking its moral and legal obligations under international law and the refugee convention to which it is party.

It is difficult to accept the state’s explanations to the High Court of Justice in praise of the voluntary departure program as the humane solution to the asylum-seekers’ problem, when it pushes them to decide between two awful options. The State of Israel is committing a crime against these people, breaking international laws and moral principles.

The interior minister who replaced Sa’ar, Gilad Erdan, appears to be following in his footsteps: After the High Court issued an injunction four months ago barring the state from summoning any additional asylum seekers to Holot, Erdan said that following the election, the Knesset should enact legislation to bypass the court. This tradition at the Interior Ministry is yet another good reason to replace the current right-wing government. But it’s impossible to wait until a new government is formed that will stop the abuse and the deportations. The court must order all those detained at Holot to be freed as quickly as possible.