If it wasn’t enough that the Israeli government had violated its obligations to African asylum seekers by setting up the Saharonim and Holot facilities and by pressuring them to leave the country under threat of detention, the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority is taking the undermining of human and legal norms relating to this population to a new level.
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Until now, the authorities tried to at least make it seem as if the asylum seekers leaving the country were doing so of their free will, although it was clear that a choice made under the threat of detention could hardly be one made freely; those who refused were generally sent to Holot, where their movements are restricted, though they are not incarcerated in the usual sense. But now the authorities are doing away with even that illusion; now Eritrean and Sudanese citizens who come to renew their visas will be given a choice: leave or be sent to Saharonim Prison for an indefinite period.
This new policy intensifies the violation of the principle of non-refoulement, under which one cannot deport a person to his country of origin if his life or freedom is endangered there, or to a third country without appropriate guarantees of his security. A Haaretz investigation has revealed that asylum seekers who have already left, ostensibly of their free will, were sent to Uganda and Rwanda without their being accorded status or protection.
The threat of being jailed in Saharonim proves what the state denied to the High Court of Justice and what it continues to deny in court; that the threat of incarceration is meant to break the asylum seekers’ spirit so that they’ll leave the country, even if it means going to an unsafe place. Thus Israel, itself a country of refugees, has turned into a state that oppresses people who seek refuge here.
This criminal policy of the immigration authorities can be understood in the context of the general abandonment in principle of this population. This was given tragic expression this week by the death of another baby in a makeshift kindergarten for asylum seekers, the fifth such death in the past several weeks.
The fact that Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has approved this new policy, including detention in Saharonim for an indefinite period, is shameful. While he speaks of the eminence of the rule of law and respect for the High Court, Weinstein continues to ignore the court’s unequivocal ruling that forbids the detention of asylum seekers without trial.
Interior Minister Gilad Erdan is thus doing no more than following in the footsteps of his predecessors, Gideon Sa’ar and Eli Yishai. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also had a hand in these inhuman measures that stain Israel’s moral image.