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Exclusive: Despite dangers, Israel sending asylum seekers to home countries

For the first time, new statistics reveal that nearly 4,600 Sudanese and 1,000 Eritreans were sent back to their countries of origin, possibly against international law. Israel’s Interior Ministry claims they are returning ‘voluntarily.’  A +972 Magazine exclusive.

By Oren Ziv / Activestills.org

Sudanese asylum seekers await deportation to South Sudan. 2012. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Asylum seekers await deportation to South Sudan. 2012. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Israel has been sending thousands of African asylum seekers back to their home countries as part of a plan for “voluntary return.” According to new statistics, which are being published here for the first time, most of the returnees have been sent back to their countries of origin — Sudan and Eritrea — rather than “third countries,” in accordance with Israel’s previously-announced arrangement, which would ostensibly ensure their safety.

According to Interior Ministry numbers revealed following a freedom of information request by Dr. Gilad Liberman and Attorney Itay Mack, and were passed on to +972, 4,608 asylum seekers have been sent back to Sudan, while 1,059 have been sent back to Eritrea. Over 4,200 asylum seekers have been sent to third countries, of which 2,600 are Sudanese and Eritrean. The vast majority of Sudanese asylum seekers who have left Israel were returned to Sudan.

The Sudanese government has committed genocide in Darfur, as well as political and ethnic persecution in other parts of the country. Eritrea is under the control of a tyrannical military regime, which forcefully enlists its citizens into the army for long periods of time or puts them in forced labor, while women are forced to serve as sex slaves for soldiers. Citizens from both Sudan and Eritrea are considered “protected groups” — a status that forbids the Israeli government from returning them to their home countries.

In response to the findings, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated that while Sudanese and Eritrean citizens have the full right to voluntarily return to their country — their return is recognized only when the returnee has a valid visa and earns a living. “However, leaving the country is not an alternative to detention and — as a response to any denial of rights — does not count as voluntary, and could even be considered illegal deportation according to both Israeli and international law, which endangers the life and safety of the returnee.”

In the past, UNHCR has said that “deporting Sudanese to Sudan constitutes a severe contravention of the [refugee] convention Israel has signed on to.”

Thousands of African asylum seekers leave Holot detention center without intention to come, June 25, 2014. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Thousands of African asylum seekers leave Holot detention center on the way to the Egyptian border, where they hope to bring attention to their struggle, Negev Desert, Israel, June 25, 2014. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Due to the dangers facing asylum seekers in their homeland, not a single European country has deported them to Eritrea or Sudan. Even asylum seekers who are not granted refugee status can remain in those countries, pursuant to the policy of non-return, which is anchored in the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Israel’s Administration of Population and Immigration has yet to respond to the above claims.

Breaking their spirits

Asylum seekers living in Israel are in constant threat of being jailed for long periods of time at the Holot detention center. Just a week ago, Israel’s High Court approved the latest version of the “anti-infiltration law,” which allows the state to imprison asylum seekers in Holot for a period of a year.

According to President of the High Court Miriam Naor’s ruling, the state has no intention of “breaking the spirit” of the asylum seekers and does not encourage them to leave, while they are eligible for protection from deportation. In response to the High Court ruling, Minister Gilad Erdan published a Facebook status [Hebrew], which revealed the true intention of the law: to break the asylum seekers’ spirits so that they return to their home countries. “The 20 months in Holot detention center…(is intended) to create an incentive for them to return to their countries of origin.”

“Many of the voluntary ‘returnees’ to their country of origin, who return despite the heavy risks entailed to their lives and freedom, are refugees whom Israel was able to break their spirits through detention and abuse,” says Mack. “Choosing their home country over a third country is not a confirmation that the asylum seeker feels that he or she is safe there.”

African asylum seekers jailed in the Holot detention center protest behind the prison's fence, February 17, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

African asylum seekers jailed in the Holot detention center protest behind the prison’s fence, February 17, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Gilad Liberman received dozens of reports detailing cases in which asylum seekers sent by Israel to their countries of origin were thereafter tortured or murdered.

“The continuation of the current policy will lead to the death of many more in Sudan and in Eritrea, from which the refugees fled because of persecution,” he said. “Since the regime now sees them as spies or dissidents, many have been imprisoned or even put to death” upon their return home.

No safety in ‘third countries’

In light of criticism against the policy of deportation, the Israeli authorities have maintained that the asylum seekers’ security would be ensured in the third country in ways that would be impossible to promise if they returned to the countries from which they fled.

The state has responded to criticism of its third country policy by claiming that the safety of the asylum seekers is ensured, and that there is a taskforce set up to track the goings on in Uganda and Rwanda. However, investigations by aid organizations have cast doubt on this claim. Needless to say, in Sudan and Eritrea, asylum seekers face much greater risks.

“Even if there was legal backing for ‘voluntary return’ by a Darfuri refugee to Sudan — Israel doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Sudan,” adds Mack. “Unless there are secret agreements between the Israeli government and Khartoum, it is clear that Israel has no real way to monitor the fate of deportees to Sudan.”

An handcuffed African asylum seeker shouts as he sits inside a police bus, after he was arrested by the immigration police during a Solidarity March For Freedom, Negev, Israel, December 19, 2013. The march set out from Holot detention centre aimed to reach the Southern city of Beer Sheva, and to show solidarity with the March For Freedom arrestees, demanding freedom and recognition of refugee rights. Israeli immigration officers arrested a hundred of them and they were sent back to prison. (Activestills.org)

An handcuffed African asylum seeker shouts as he sits inside a police bus, after he was arrested by the immigration police during a Solidarity March For Freedom, Negev, Israel, December 19, 2013. The march set out from Holot detention centre aimed to reach the Southern city of Beer Sheva, and to show solidarity with the March For Freedom arrestees, demanding freedom and recognition of refugee rights. Israeli immigration officers arrested a hundred of them and they were sent back to prison. (Activestills.org)

Despite Israeli promises, Rwanda and Uganda do not have proper procedures for absorbing asylum seekers, leaving the majority of them without solutions. In Rwanda, many asylum seekers receive a 48-hour visa, and many choose to continue to other places in the hope of finding a place where they will be recognized as refugees.

Emanuel Yamini, an asylum seeker from Eritrea, says that “in Israel, they promise us that nothing will happen for those who return, that it’s coordinated with the embassies, but when people leave Israel and arrive to the airport in the Eritrean capital they find government officials waiting for them.”

He says that he hasn’t been able to contact a fellow asylum seeker who has returned to Eritrea, adding that “Israel is endangering our lives, if it’s by sending us to Eritrea or to a third country.”

Most asylum seekers that have left Israel have agreed to “voluntary return” while being jailed in either Saharonim or Holot, or having been summoned to Holot. A report by the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, which looks at asylum seekers who were sent to third countries while imprisoned in Saharonim, found that “through cross-checking with a number of sources in Sudan, 13 Sudanese asylum seekers who returned from Israel were murdered in prison by the authorities. Others are currently imprisoned and it is likely that they are being tortured.” Additional asylum seekers have been murdered in South Sudan and Libya, while others have drowned in the Mediterranean while trying to reach Europe.

Israel’s Administration of Population and Immigration refuses to provide details on the number of asylum seekers who leave the country from Holot.

The process of “voluntary return” began picking up steam in 2014, when the state began sending summons asylum seekers to Holot for indefinite periods of time. Only after human rights groups petitioned the High Court was the detention period reduced, first to 20 months, and now to a year. In the coming days thousands of jailed asylum seekers — who have been in Holot for over a year — will be released. Meanwhile, the immigration authorities have begun summoning thousands of asylum seekers in Israel to Holot.

Sadiq’s story

Sadiq Al-Sadiq seen outside Holot detention center. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Sadiq Al-Sadiq seen outside Holot detention center. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

After Sadiq al-Sadiq signed off on “voluntary return” to a third country, he reached the airport at Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, only to discover that his final destination was Sudan. He refused to get on the flight and was able to return to Israel, where he was jailed in Holot.

In a hearing on the case following his return, Gideon Cohen, the head of the Administration of Population and Immigration’s unit dealing with voluntary return, testified that he does not bother to get asylum seekers to sign off on their return. “We used to get signatures,” said Cohen. “This created a big pile of paperwork that no one did anything with. At some point, I made a decision, which was backed by my manager, Yossi Edelstein, that there is no need for the person to come to me, that him coming to me is voluntary. Even if I got his signature, he can always claim that someone forced him to sign. My personal opinion is that this is totally unnecessary.”

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