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Israel halts asylum seeker deportations — for now

Israeli authorities signal they plan to keep the deportation plan on schedule.

By Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man and Joshua Leifer

Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers line up hoping to file asylum claims, renew visas at Israeli Interior Ministry in Bnei Brak. February 18, 2018. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers line up hoping to file asylum claims, renew visas at Israeli Interior Ministry in Bnei Brak. February 18, 2018. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Israeli authorities announced that they will temporarily halt, until further notice, the deportation of African asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda. Israel will, however, continue to issue deportation notices, and asylum seekers who are already in prison for refusing deportation will not be released. Those processes will continue, the state told the High Court of Justice on Wednesday, “so that the [deportation] plan’s timeline is not delayed.”

The decision to temporarily halt the deportations came in response to a petition that sought an injunction to stop it. The High Court had declined to issue an injunction in a hearing Monday and it is likely that the state’s response on Wednesday was intended to ensure the court does not issue one. The deportations are are not scheduled to begin until April 1, so the Wednesday’s decision will have no immediate effect.

Israel’s plan to deport tens of thousands of African asylum seekers is based on an agreement between Israel and Rwanda, which Israel insists must remain secret and which Rwanda has denied exists at all. One of the main arguments in the petition against the deportation plan was that an agreement which one side refuses to acknowledge even exists is impossible to enforce, thereby putting the deported asylum seekers at risk and with no recourse.

In a hearing on Monday, Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer asked the state attorney how asylum seekers can be sure they will receive what Israel is promising them — legal status and the ability to work — if the Rwandan government denies that any agreement exists.

“If some of the refugees have problems in Rwanda, and theoretically they go to a Rwandan court, the court will say, ‘the Rwandan government denies that there is an agreement,’ so how could this agreement be enforceable?” the justice asked the state, according to Eitay Mack, who along with Attorney Avigdor Feldman is representing 119 Israeli human rights activists petitioning the court for an injunction.

Asylum seekers protest outside Holot detention center against Israel's deportation plan. February 22, 2018. (Oren Ziv/Activestills)

Asylum seekers protest outside Holot detention center against Israel’s deportation plan. February 22, 2018. (Oren Ziv/Activestills)

+972 Magazine went to Rwanda and Uganda last month to see how the asylum seekers that Israel deports fare upon their arrival. The deported asylum seekers are not given any status in Rwanda and most are pressured or pushed out of the country within days of their arrival — left with little cash and no travel documents.

The High Court approved a previous version of the agreement with Rwanda in secret, giving its approval to the plan. However, changes have reportedly been made to the agreement and the petitioners claim the court must now reconsider its position, including whether current Israeli law even gives the government authority to carry out the mass deportations.

While Rwanda’s denial of the agreement’s existence may pose a significant complication for the Israeli government’s plan, Mack was cautious in describing how the court may treat it. “They didn’t decide that there’s no solution to Rwanda’s denial,” he said. “They saw that there’s a problem, but who knows, maybe the state will have a good answer in the future that could satisfy the judges.”

Even if the agreement is struck down, Mack cautioned, the deportations will not necessarily end. The effort will simply go from a mass, group deportation to individual deportations.

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)

An estimated 38,000 asylum seekers, most of whom fled Eritrea and Sudan, currently live in Israel. The Israeli government announced in January that the asylum seekers had three months to leave the country. Those who remain in Israel by April 1 will face a stark choice: deportation or prison.

The Israeli government has refused to process and accept the overwhelming majority of African asylum seekers’ requests for refugee status. To date, Israel has recognized only one Sudanese national and 11 Eritreans as refugees. In contrast, 94.1 percent of Eritreans are recognized as refugees in Europe. An appellate custody tribunal ordered the state on Sunday to grant temporary residency to five Darfurian refugees due to what it deemed an unreasonable delay in processing their asylum requests.

Israel’s lack of a clear asylum policy and its failure to make information available has also made it difficult for people to submit successful asylum requests. Only 15,000 of the roughly 38,000 asylum seekers living in Israel have submitted requests for refugee status, and Israel has reviewed just 7,000 of them.

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