The High Court of Justice on Monday allowed Israel to continue with its controversial practice of deporting illegal migrants to an unnamed third country, but said the government cannot jail those who refuse to go for more than 60 days.
The judges unanimously rejected a petition by human rights groups against the deportation practice, but stressed that the deportations could only to be carried out with the agreement of the migrants.
The court also ruled that the Israeli authorities had to first ensure that the third country was safe.
“It has not been proven that this (third) country is unsafe. All procedural conditions for the deportation arrangement have been met,” the judges wrote in their ruling.
Expulsion to a third country is largely unprecedented in the Western world. Italy and Australia signed similar agreements with third-party countries — Italy with Libya, and Australia with Malaysia — but both proposals were shot down by local courts. In both cases, courts ruled the bills inconsistent with international law and the 1951 UN convention on refugees — to which Israel is also a party.
However, the High Court also ruled that since the deportations may only be carried out with the agreement of the migrants, refusal to leave Israel cannot be considered uncooperative behavior. And Israel may not imprison migrants who refuse to leave for more than 60 days.
Previously Israel had detained refugees in an open prison for up to 12 months.
Following the ruling, Israeli officials said they would amend the law so that migrants could be deported without their consent too.
“The High Court removed from the state the ability to pressure the illegal infiltrators,” she said. “It turned the [migrant’s] lack of cooperation into a reward. We will fight this until we achieve the necessary results,” said Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.
“We will need to pass a new law that will permit us to enforce these agreements,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, adding that this was one of a three-pronged policy against migrants.
The other two include the fence built between Israel and the Sinai to prevent infiltrators and the agreement that Netanyahu worked out with the third country to facilitate the deportations.
The Israeli Immigration Policy Center, a group that has strongly supported measures to deport illegal immigrants, praised the ruling.
Yonatan Jakubowicz, a spokesman for the group said that the judges ruling was “very positive.” He called upon the government “to act swiftly in order to advance an amended agreement to deport the infiltrators who have no legal or moral grounds to stay in Israel.”
Israel’s practice of deporting the migrants to an unnamed country is highly controversial, and there are reports of the migrants being mistreated once they arrive there.
In June Foreign Policy news site reported that it had spoke to several people who were deported from Israel to Rwanda or Uganda.
The refugees said they were denied legal papers, not given the promised assistance from the Israeli authorities, and were encouraged to illegally enter yet another country.
From 2009 through the beginning of 2015, Sudanese asylum seekers have submitted 3,165 requests for asylum, according to documents provided to the High Court of Justice during a February 2015 hearing about the amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law, Haaretz reported.
The state has responded to 1.42% of these requests, or 45 people, rejecting 40 outright and granting temporary protection to five people.
According to the African Refugee Development Center, there are approximately 46,437 Africans in Israel who consider themselves asylum seekers. The majority, 73%, are from Eritrea, and approximately 19% are from Sudan.
Between 2009 and 2015, 2,408 Eritreans requested refugee status in Israel. The state again has responded to 1.42% of these requests, or 45 people, also rejecting 40 outright, and granting temporary protection to five, while the Interior Ministry granted refugee status to four people.
Israel’s approval ratings for refugee status are drastically lower than international levels. According to the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees, internationally, 84% of Eritreans and 56% of Sudanese asylum seekers received either refugee status or extended protection in 2014.
The Population and Immigration Authority says over 40,000 illegal migrants are residing in Israel as of 2016, almost all from Eritrea and Sudan. Many live in the poorer neighborhoods of southern Tel Aviv, with some blaming them for rising crime rates in the city.
Israel has in recent years sought to limit the migrants’ numbers. It has built a fence along the border with Egypt, a once-common migration route, and sent many migrants to a desert detention facility — and in some cases back to third-party countries in Africa.
Many say they are fleeing conflict and persecution and are seeking refugee status. Israeli officials contend they are economic migrants, and have resisted calls to recognize them as refugees.