Christian African Eritrean migrant children play during a prayer at a makeshift church in southern Tel Aviv on September 2, 2017. Some 38,000 African migrants mostly living in south Tel Aviv face a threat of deportation. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Plight or Flight: The Deportations of Eritrean and Sudanese Asylum-Seekers in Israel

By Inka Sklodowska Boehm, Refugee Advocacy & Government Relations Intern

“If you don’t leave to Rwanda, you will leave Israel in a coffin.”

These were the words of Israeli guards, taunting a recently arrested Eritrean asylum-seeker. These words hit the point echoing through the minds of many other North African refugees and migrants placed indefinitely in detention. Amnesty International’s Forced and Unlawful: Israel’s Deportation of Eritrean and Sudanese Asylum-Seekers to Uganda unveils the extent of the anti-refugee sentiments of the Israeli government. “Infiltrators” — the Israeli government’s term for irregular migrants — have been fleeing to Israel from civil war and totalitarian governments since 2006. Eritreans and Sudanese accounted for almost 3 million of the 68.5 million UNHCR persons of concern in 2017. Despite even more individuals seeking asylum, the Israeli government has recognized fewer than one percent of Eritreans and Sudanese migrants as refugees. Comparing this statistic to how the European Union has treated first-time Eritrean asylum-seeking cases — at a rate of 90% — reveals the systemic dysfunctional nature of Israel’s immigration procedures.

Amnesty International has called for all countries to put systems in place that provide for adequate protection of asylum-seekers, and ensure they have a clear and fair mechanism by which to apply for asylum and receive the protection to which they are entitled under international law. An asylum-seeker already faces the challenge of navigating the discriminatory Israeli asylum system, which ultimately offers limited to no protection whatsoever. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s three-stage plan illustrates how policies work against refugees. Stage one, preventing further “infiltration,” was completed in 2012 with the wall between Israel and Egypt. Next, the plan calls for ‘voluntary’ departures. The third and final stage is forced transfer. During the ‘voluntary’ departure stage, Israeli immigration forces frequently depend on offering an impossible choice: leaving the country with $3500 or facing indefinite incarceration in any of the already overcrowded prisons (both courtesy of the Israeli government). Regardless of the language Israel uses, the so-called voluntary transfers lack the free and informed consent necessary in defining ‘voluntary.’ They also directly violate the 1951 Refugee Convention and its accompanying protocol, both of which Israel has signed, by forcing asylum-seekers back to dangerous conditions. The threat of indefinite imprisonment forces many asylum-seekers, as well as individuals seeking to renew their visas, to pack up their lives and return to uncertainty and potential persecution.

The Israeli government has made its position on asylum-seekers very clear. Interior Minister Eli Yishai said of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees and migrants in August of 2012, “Until I can deport them I’ll lock them up to make their lives miserable.” He has succeeded. The closing of what one Israeli minister described as “hotel for infiltrators at the public’s expense” came amidst Supreme Court judgements against indefinite detention. The same asylum-seeker verbally tormented by the guards told Amnesty International that his friends in Uganda warned him not to come. He would rather be sent back to Eritrea, “so that my mother can visit my grave.”

Those who do take Israel up on the offer of covered transfer to Uganda do not fare much better. Israel selected Uganda as its voluntary deportation destination after separate deals with the UNHCR and Rwanda fell through. While Israel provides cash at the airport upon departure, the entry visa is rarely recognized. Ugandan officials, when confronted with the document bearing the symbol of the Ugandan Directorate of Citizenship and Immigration Control or something similar, call it a forgery and say they owe the deportees absolutely nothing.

Con artists scam freshly arrived Sudanese and Eritreans, robbing them of both their hope of a brighter future and the large sum of cash “gifted” by the Israeli government. This scamming culture persists as new arrivals try to register asylum claims with the Ugandan government. Incorrect information about the process results in asylum-seekers utilizing middlemen, who demand ridiculously high sums as bribes for services that often prove unnecessary or unhelpful.

Monitoring mechanisms required by the Israeli Supreme Court intended to guarantee deportees’ protection are noticeably absent. The Israeli government claims “local representatives” will meet the newcomers upon entry to help them get settled. Even this arrangement reeks of deception. One deportee reported:

I wanted to go through normal immigration checks but the men who were escorting us across the airport told us to go a different way. I asked what was going on. I told them ‘I came here legally, what you are doing is kidnapping.’

Others report that these so-called local representatives are Eritrean and Sudanese men, overseen by the Israeli government. The people at the airport send new arrivals to a prepaid hotel, where they receive an orientation for a couple days. The network of so-called “local representatives” then leave them on their own, providing little assistance in actually resettling in Uganda. Asylum-seekers must then face consequences of irregular status in Uganda, and many turn to smugglers for passage to Eritrea, Sudan, or even take dangerous and potentially deadly routes to Europe.

We are witnessing a systematic cycle of abuse. People flee their homelands out of genuine fear, suffer at the hands of human traffickers, only to wind up in a country whose discriminatory policies put asylum-seekers at even greater risk. What other alternatives are open to these survivors who have risked and lost so much? For many, desperation leads to even more dangerous alternatives: perilous journeys through Libya and across the Mediterranean. To understand the severity of the latter, one only has to glance at the title of Amnesty’s recent report: “Surging Death Toll in Central Mediterranean Laid Squarely at Europe’s Door.” So long as these policies remain, asylum-seekers will continue to turn to potentially fatal solutions.

We don’t need a bigger boat. We need the international community, including the United States, to step up and be accountable to refugees and asylum-seekers, as required by international law. Partnering with the UNHCR to find solutions not involving the deportations of asylum-seekers to dangerous situations, would be a good place for Israel to start. Amnesty International also calls upon members of the African Union to refuse cooperation with these unlawful deportations. Additionally, both Israel and African Union member states should strive to offer a legitimate and accessible asylum system so that asylum-seekers are given a fair chance to start a new and secure life.

Abraham, an Eritrean caught in Eritrea’s system of indefinite and mandatory military service, attempted to flee the country, but was soon caught and detained without trial in Eritrea. Throughout his imprisonment, his interrogators would beat him before returning him to the small dark cell he called home for over two years. He somehow escaped prison and made it to Israel in 2011. Five years later, the government detained him in Holot on grounds of his visa expiring. In 2017, after learning about the Refugee Status Determination process from a visiting NGO, he applied for asylum. This application was denied under grounds that desertion from military service is not seen as political persecution under the 1951 Refugee Convention. There was no mention of Abraham’s torture.

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