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The farce of Israel's 'voluntary deportation' policy

After fleeing Eritrea and being tortured in Egypt, the Israeli government gave Daniel two choices: either voluntarily deport yourself to Rwanda or go to prison.

By Sigal Rozen

Immigration police arresting an Eritrean refugee, Tel Aviv, Israel, 2/3/2008 (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Immigration police arresting an Eritrean refugee, Tel Aviv, Israel, March 2, 2008 (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

“You see this one? When they’ll come to take everybody, this one I’ll hide in my home!” told me Yossi, owner of a shop in south Tel Aviv, and one of the leaders of the campaign against the “infiltrators” as he pointed at his employee, Daniel (not his real name). During Knesset hearings, Yossi would talk about the Eritrean infiltrators who get drunk, start fights and leave broken bottles and blood stains next to his shop. Yet he loved and appreciated his hardworking Eritrean employee.

When the Holot detention facility was established, they didn’t take everyone. There is no room for everybody. When the orders to go to Holot came, Yossi didn’t hide Daniel, and the latter obediently headed for the detention facility in the middle of the desert. While in Holot, Daniel once again applied for asylum after realizing that his previous attempts did not suffice.

Reading the 37 pages of Daniel’s asylum interview made me shiver. Daniel informed the interviewer, who was acting as a hostile interrogator, that he was forcibly drafted into the Eritrean military at the age of 16 and served for 11 years. In 2007 he was wrongly accused of defecting from the military — although he was inside Eritrea at the time, serving his country as he was ordered. Fearful of what will happen to him, Daniel fled to neighboring Ethiopia. During the crossing, Eritrean soldiers fired at him, according to the shoot-to-kill policy at the border, but he escaped unharmed.

Daniel reached the Shimelba refugee camp in Ethiopia and from there walked to Shagarab refugee camp in Sudan. There, along with other Eritrean friends, he paid Bedouin smugglers from the Rashaida tribe to smuggle them to Libya, en route to Europe. “They told us they’ll take us to Libya, but they took us to Egypt,” Daniel told the interviewer from the Interior Ministry. “Egyptian soldiers who caught us and locked us up in a prison for a month… we didn’t know we’re going back to Eritrea. The Red Cross was there and told us to sign papers and that’s how they returned us.”

Daniel doesn’t add any details about the harsh detention conditions in Egypt, nor about his fear of being deported to Eritrea. The interviewee doesn’t ask. Daniel adds: “I returned to the city of Bats’a and then they took us to Wi’a prison.” The clerk asks: “How long did you stay in prison?” Daniel responds: “We were underground. It was dark. We would go out to the bathroom once a day.” Daniel doesn’t elaborate, and it is clear that the clerk doesn’t encourage him to expand on the matter.

The final report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, based on 550 interviews with Eritreans who have been able to escape the country recently, describes in detail the conditions of detention in Wi’a prison during the year when Daniel was held.

Dozens of asylum seekers wait at a bus stop outside Holot detention center upon being released, August 25, 2015. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Dozens of asylum seekers wait at a bus stop outside Holot detention center upon being released, August 25, 2015. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

One former detainee told the authors of the report: “Our life was very hard in the underground prison, in particular because of the heat and the number of people in the cell. Even the water was limited and hard to drink; the lack of hygiene was unbearable. We were not able to wash ourselves. We had no medical assistance, we were not receiving treatment. The conditions were inhumane. We were 400 men with underage and old people.”

Another former Wi’a detainee adds: “They put water on your body. It is very cold in the night. We were shivering. You are outside. They tie your legs and arms and hang you from the tree for 45 minutes. Some might have died but the officers simply said those who disappeared had been transferred.”

In this prison, Daniel was held underground for five months until he was able to escape when he was let out to the bathroom.

Once again, Daniel escaped to Ethiopia, this time to the Mai Aini refugee camp. From there he went to Shagarab. When he heard that Eritrean soldiers were entering the camp to kidnap defectors, he fled to Egypt with a group of Eritreans, where he was kidnapped and taken to the torture camps in Sinai. When asked by the interviewer about whether he was hurt in Sinai, Daniel answered tersely: “I was beaten with chains.”

What the bones remember: Israeli doctors talk torture

Daniel also told the Interior Ministry clerk about his political activism in Israel as part of the Eritrean resistance movement “Smer.” When asked what he thinks will happen if he returns to Eritrea, Daniel replied: “I won’t have peace there… they will hit me and put me in prison.”

None of this prevented the Interior Ministry from rejecting Daniel’s asylum claim. In July 2015, Daniel received the rejection letter, which like all other rejection letters handed to Eritrean asylum seekers in Israel, stated: “By decision of the Director of Population and Immigration Authority, authorized by the Interior Minister, evasion of army service or deserting of army duties in and of themselves, or with no connection to any of the grounds listed in the refugee convention, are not enough to establish grounds for political persecution in accordance with the convention…”

Victims of torture camps in the Sinai Desert, Egypt, show their injuries as African asylum seekers shout slogans during a protest in front of Israel Ministry of Interior offices in Tel Aviv, February 11, 2014. African asylum seekers marched from Levinsky park to protest against the new Holot detention center for African immigrants and called on the Israeli government to recognize their refugee rights. (photo: Activestills.org)

Victims of torture camps in the Sinai Desert, Egypt, show their injuries as African asylum seekers shout slogans during a protest in front of Israel Ministry of Interior offices in Tel Aviv, February 11, 2014. African asylum seekers marched from Levinsky park to protest against the new Holot detention center for African immigrants and called on the Israeli government to recognize their refugee rights. (photo: Activestills.org)

Daniel came to me worried, saying that Interior Ministry officials at Holot have ordered him to leave to Rwanda. Should he refuse, he will be jailed in Saharonim prison indefinitely. I told him that they cannot deport him by force, and that we at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants will do everything we can to prevent his incarceration. I asked him to wait a few days.

Daniel didn’t wait. A few nights later he sent me a photo of him holding a suitcase. I tried calling him, but his phone was already disconnected.

Four days later, Daniel called me from Kampala, Uganda: “I had no choice,” he explained, “the Interior Ministry told me I must leave to Rwanda. I thought that maybe it won’t be that bad. They promised me $3,500 and I thought I could start a new life in Rwanda with that money. We flew through Turkey. We were 13 Eritreans from Israel. When he arrived in Kigali, immigration people there took our money and documents and took us to a house. They told us that we must cross to Uganda and then they smuggled us there. I am here without any documents and papers now and I don’t know what to do.” The call was disconnected before I could say that I will try to help him. Since then, his phone has been turned off, a familiar sign of further attempts to flee to other countries in search of safety.

Now all that is left to do is to wait for the next call. My past experience taught me that the next call often comes after weeks or months, often from a European country. The refugees report about their good living conditions and praise God for their deliverance. Sometimes the next call comes from another African country with a meek request for financial assistance. Sometimes the next call never comes.

Sigal Rozen is the Public Policy Coordinator at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an Israeli human rights NGO. This article was first published in Hebrew on ‘The Hottest Place in Hell’.

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    1. Ben

      There is something really disturbing about the utterly heartless way Israel, as demonstrated here, treats non-Jews and especially non-white non-Jews. This smells of anti-non-Semitism and racism. All of these people speak Hebrew by now. The African asylum seekers have a lower crime rate than the general Israeli population–a Knesset report showed that. These people want to work and work hard and would be a positive force in the economy. This is pure racism and anti-non-Semitism. “Geographic and demographic depth.” These are code words for pure racism. Israel was able to absorb vastly greater numbers at many points in the past. What an ugly country. What an ugly man Netanyahu is. What a hypocrite. Just appalling.

      Reply to Comment
      • Gustav

        The heading of this article starts with this…

        “After fleeing Eritrea and being tortured in Egypt”

        Elsewhere, asylum seekers drown, suffocate on the back of trucks, wretchedly crawl under barbed wires and rot in crowded refugee camps. But who does Benny single out? His favorite villains. Jews and Israel. Of course he would never admit why he singles out Jews.

        Psst, Benny: you wouldn’t be a Jew hater would you? Go on, you can tell big daddy. The truth will set you free…

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          Gee, no. Not at all. You wouldn’t be a dick would you? No? You’re exceedingly rude and offensive. Do you hate Jews who have a conscience and sense of humanity that transcends race and narrow tribalism? Do you hate Gentiles? As I told you before, I’m not going to cooperate in your incessant attempts to distract from the topic and insert an unhinged, extreme rightist viewpoint as somehow normal and call the whole +972 enterprise a Jew hating plot. It’s your pal Bibi who is flat out refusing to help the wretched ones (and whose only response is to use the situation as a pretext to build a land-grabbing wall on “our border” which is not your border). Treating them like “cancer.” The Jewish prime minister and his others ministers in need of lessons in humanity from the Austrians and the Germans. Gee. How about that? Give me one good reason Israel cannot integrate the 45,000 Hebrew speaking, hard working, African asylum seekers already among you? Besides that they’re black and they’re not Jewish? Do you agree with government minister Miri Regev that they are a cancer in the body of Israel? Yes or no? Do you approve of Minister Regev saying that? Yes or no? Do you approve of her then apologizing–to cancer victims? Yes or no? Do you approve of the way ‘Daniel’ was treated? Yes or no? Stay on topic or stay far away from me.

          Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            Two possibilities here folks…

            Either Benny is lying and he is a common, garden variety Jew hating antiSemite. Or he is one of our idiot Jews.

            Let me assume he is the latter (for now). In spite of popular belief and prejudice, that we are smart, we have our idiots too. And unfortunately we excel even in idiocy. We have the best idiots in the world!

            Our breed of idiots (a la Benny) hold a binary belief about us. They believe that unless Jews are perfect human beings we are evil personified. According to them there is nothing in between. They also believe that if we have a conflict with non Jews, then we Jews are automatically in the wrong.

            As for Benny’s assertion that I am an extreme right winger, he makes me think of a hammer. In Benny’s feverish little world, there are only hammers and nails. The hammers are those who agree with him, the rest of us are nails, or as he puts it, we are extreme right wingers. What can one say? One can only shake one’s head and laugh at him.

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            As for staying on topic, Benny, mentioning your credentials as a hater IS on topic. You pass judgement on us obsessively every day. It is important that those who read your simplistic one sided nonsense understand who you really are.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Yes, “folks,” this suspect character is suspiciously suspected of being not just a common garden variety antiSemite but a JEW HATING antiSemite! Whoah! Or even worse, that very special creature, THE IDIOT JEW! We make the BEST! Yessiree! Better put this outstanding idiot, this daaaangerous creature, The Idiot Jew, in administrative detention right now! Put him in the cell next to Ido Ramon!


            More Idiot Jews: Amit Ramon, Hedva Adviri, Eyal Rosenberg, Mordechai Zeldon, Ishai Menuchin….

            More Idiot Jews: Noam Scheizaf, Dahlia Scheindlin, Natasha Roth….

            Not to mention the Idiot Arabs: Samah Salaime, Amjad Iraqi, Samer Badawi, Sayed Kashua….

            It’s our right! Protect the people from Idiot Jews and Idiot Arabs! Why it’s nothing less than Idiotic Terror! Only a Jew Hating AntiSemite or an Idiot Jew could possibly disagree with me! We must demonize this fellow and let “folks” know who he “really” is! The ad hominem attack is the only defense we’ve got–throw it into the breach!

            The Idiot

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            The Idiot”

            Good work Benny, at least you accept your own idiocy. And yes, you are not alone. We have others like you.

            But do you know why you are village idiots? I’ll tell you anyways.

            … because you make it a blood sport to vilify your fellow Jews, day in day out while at the same time you ignore what our enemies do.

            … that kinda makes you suicidal. You remind me of a man who sits on top of a branch of a very tall tree and is busily sawing off the branch on which you sit. What do you think will happen to that man, Benny? Do you think that man is not an idiot?

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            You’re not perfect? I’ll say. You didn’t send Ms. Cancer in the Body packing, you made her your CULTURE Minister!!!

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            No Benny, nobody is perfect, certainly your Arab friends are not perfect either and neither are you, even if you get a warm inner glow everytime you get on your soap box and vilify us.

            Hey Benny, what would you do if we the “perfect villains” wouldn’t exist? You would have no reason to exist, I suspect. LOL.

            Reply to Comment