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In another blow to deportation plan, Israel frees jailed asylum seekers

Israel frees 200 asylum seekers imprisoned for refusing deportation after the government admits there is no secret agreement with Uganda that allows for the mass deportation of refugees.

Asylum seekers released from Saharonim after Israel failed to present a new agreement that permits their deportation to Uganda. April 15, 2018. (Oren Ziv / Activestills.org)

Asylum seekers released from Saharonim after Israel failed to present a new agreement that permits their deportation to Uganda. April 15, 2018. (Oren Ziv / Activestills.org)

Israel released 207 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers on Sunday, all of whom had been indefinitely imprisoned for refusing deportation to Uganda or Rwanda.

Israel’s High Court ruled last Tuesday that the government had until Sunday at noon to present a new agreement with Uganda that would allow the mass deportation of refugees to proceed.

In the absence of an agreement, the Court ordered the government to release all asylum seekers who had been imprisoned for refusing deportation to Rwanda or Uganda.

The state failed to meet the court’s deadline.

Over the course of the past month, the Israeli government’s plan to forcibly deport tens of thousands of African asylum seekers, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, frayed and appears now to have almost completely fallen apart.

After intense international pressure led Rwanda to back out of a secret agreement with Israel to accept deported refugees, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced a different arrangement in early April. In exchange for the UN helping resettle 16,250 asylum seekers in Western countries, Israel would provide legal status to those who remained.

But just hours after announcing the UN deal, under pressure from the Israeli Right, Netanyahu cancelled it.

The Israeli government has since claimed that it was close to reaching a secret agreement with Uganda similar to the one it claimed to have with Rwanda (to accept forcibly deported asylum seekers).

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Ugandan officials, however, have repeatedly denied any agreement exists and even claim that Israel is giving forged travel documents, bearing the Ugandan Interior Ministry’s insignia, to asylum seekers that it deports.

Between 2013 and 2017, roughly 4,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers left Israel for Rwanda or Uganda under the “voluntary return” program, which will remain in place whether or not Israel reaches an agreement to forcibly deport the asylum seekers en masse. A special +972 Magazine investigation found that the overwhelming majority of those refugees deported to Rwanda or Uganda received no formal status or the ability to work — which Israel promised they would receive — and were forced out of the country.

Asylum seekers and an Israeli activist outside of Saharonim after Israel released 207 asylum seekers imprisoned for refusing deportation. April 15, 2018. (Oren Ziv / Activestills.org)

Asylum seekers and an Israeli activist outside of Saharonim after Israel released 207 asylum seekers imprisoned for refusing deportation. April 15, 2018. (Oren Ziv / Activestills.org)

An injunction against the government’s deportation plan remains in place for another week. If the Israeli government fails to reach a new agreement with Uganda, the mass deportation plan will likely be off the table, Sigal Avivi, an Israeli human rights activist, said by phone on Sunday — at least for now.

Avivi, one of the 119 human rights activists who petitioned Israel’s High Court for the injunction, added that she doubts Israel will reach an agreement with Uganda to deport the Eritrean and Sudanese refugees. “I don’t believe that any country will accept refugees deported by force.”

But, Avivi stressed, “the struggle is very much not over.” She said that next stage was to fight to get formal, legal status for the roughly 38,000 asylum seekers currently living in Israel.

Under current Israeli policy, African asylum seekers must renew their visas every two months, businesses that employ them can be fined, and the government seizes 20 percent of their paychecks — which it returns to them only if and when they leave Israel.

Attorney Assaf Weitzen, who has helped coordinate international protests against Israel’s deportation plan, struck a more cautious tone. “At the moment it’s hard to know what will happen,” he said. “We’re happy that the 200 people are going to be released but we will have to follow closely what the government does. This is an ongoing struggle with ups and downs.”

Meanwhile, the collapse of the agreement with Rwanda and Netanyahu’s decision to cancel the UN deal has sparked a political crisis within Israel’s right-wing governing coalition — the second in as many months that could lead to early elections.

The right flank of the coalition, including the prime minister and his allies, has seized the opportunity to redouble its efforts to strip Israel’s Supreme Court of its ability to strike down laws it deems unconstitutional. The High Court override law has been proposed but has not passed.

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