Israel is returning Eritrean asylum-seekers to Africa under false pretenses and breaking international law, a UN official said in comments published Monday

Israel’s claim that illegal Eritrean migrants have voluntarily agreed to repatriation to their homeland is false, and the government actions are in violation of international law, a UN official was quoted as saying.

William Tall, the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel, told Haaretz that Israel’s claim that illegal Eritrean migrants have voluntarily agreed to repatriation does not match the reality on the ground.

He said he visited the prisons where Eritrean nationals are being held and heard what Israel has offered. “Agreement to return to Eritrea under an ultimatum of jail … can’t be considered voluntary by any criterion. It is explicitly not voluntary return,” Tall said.

Under the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, of which Israel is a signatory, countries cannot return refugees or asylum-seekers to their country of origin against their will if they feel threatened there.

Thousands of Eritreans and other Africans have entered Israel illegally over the past decade, claiming asylum-seeker status. Israel rarely grants refugee status and has made attempts to repatriate the Africans over the past year, including giving them payouts in exchange for leaving.

Last week, Haaretz reported that several Eritreans currently in Israeli jails testified that Interior Ministry immigration officials gave them the choice of “voluntarily” returning home or remaining in prison for three years.

In June, the Population and Immigration Authority, which is part of the Interior Ministry, decided in coordination with the Shin Bet that illegal migrants who cross into Israel from Egypt will be detained for periods of up to three years, rather than being permitted to move into Israeli cities.

At the time, Tall threatened that the UN would take legal action if Israel took that step.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has labeled the Eritrean government as totalitarian and in violation of human rights.

According to the UN High Commissioners annual report for 2011, 74% of Eritrean applicants for refugee status outside of Israel do receive the protection.

“The government needs to provide an Eritrean access to sanctuary. That’s not happening,” said Tall. “We are concerned that these returns will be made under pressure …under no circumstances can return under threat of imprisonment, without any access to the asylum apparatus, be considered voluntary.”

The entry of African migrants has been almost completely stanched by the construction of a barrier along Israel’s border with Egypt. The number of migrants from Africa illegally entering Israel dropped from over 2,000 in January 2012 to 36 in December. All 36 of the migrants were arrested and taken to a recently constructed detention facility in the Negev desert.

In mid-2012, several incidents of violence against migrants were reported, especially in the south Tel Aviv area, including two cases in which anti-migrant activists hurled Molotov cocktails at apartments occupied by migrants.

During the summer, Israel repatriated several hundred migrants to the newly formed South Sudan.

Greg Tepper contributed to this report.