Cast to Their Fate

After sending away 18 Eritrean migrants at its southern border fence, Israel can and must take up the position that these refugees deserve protection. And that is how Israel should have treated them.

This is how Israel got rid of the "nuisance" crouching on its doorstep: After a group of Eritrean migrants sat for more than a week at the southern border fence, almost without food and, in the words of an Israel Defense Forces officer, "as little as possible" water, the Prime Minister's Office decided to transfer two women and a teenage boy to the Saharonim prison and send the rest on their way. That was an inhumane step, which goes against international treaties to which Israel is a signatory. Neither did Israel bother, as it should have, to find out what happened to the 18 migrants who were sent away.

Thus Israel did not fulfill its moral and legal obligations. The High Court of Justice did not meet its obligation either. At first it put off its ruling by three days, despite the urgency. Then, on Sunday, after the 18 had already been removed, the justices struck down the petition filed by the advocacy group We Are Refugees, declaring it unnecessary. The High Court ignored the petition's clause demanding that the state find out what happened to those it sent away.

The ruling went against the opinion the court had received from the representative in Israel of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. William Tall harshly criticized the way Israel had handled the migrants and expressed concern for those who were deported.

The Prime Minister's Office, which was responsible for the shameful solution, refused to say whether the decision to send the migrants away was coordinated with the High Court. Now everyone is washing their hands of the matter. The Prime Minister's Office boasts that it "solved" the problem, when in essence Israel deported 18 migrants from a country whose asylum-seekers Israel is not allowed to deport, and the action was taken without ensuring their safety. The High Court justices washed their hands of it by avoiding a decision on this issue of principle and human rights.

No one knows what happened to the Eritreans. According to various past reports the Egyptians do not allow free access to the asylum-request system. This week the Egyptian security forces killed another Ethiopian migrant who was trying to approach the border with Israel.

Israel can and must - perhaps together with other countries - take up the position that these refugees deserve protection. And that is how Israel should have treated them.

Eritrean citizens trapped between the fences on the Israeli-Egyptian border, September 5, 2012.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz