Authorities slammed for holding Swedish national for 5 days

Judge says officials discriminated against Azeb Gebreegziabher based solely on her Eritrean ethnicity

A general view of the entrance to the passport control area at Ben Gurion International Airport, November 2, 2006. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
A general view of the entrance to the passport control area at Ben Gurion International Airport, November 2, 2006. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

The Population Immigration and Border Authority set free on Monday a Swedish woman of Eritrean descent who had been detained at Ben-Gurion Airport for five days on suspicion that she intended to settle illegally in Israel.

After reviewing the case, Lod District Court Judge Avraham Yaakov ordered PIBA to release Azeb Gebreegziabher and pay her damages in the amount of NIS 25,000 ($7,233), adding that the actions of the authority reeked of discrimination.

“The respondent apparently referred to the one characteristic that is not typical of Swedish citizens — that the petitioner is of Eritrean descent,” Yaakov said in his decision, according to the Haaretz daily. “The respondent may not discriminate against citizens of the same country based solely on ethnicity.”

He added that the immigration authority had no basis for detaining Gebreegziabher and criticized the authorities for potentially harming Israel’s image internationally.

“Officials of the respondent acted arbitrarily and in an extremely unreasonable manner,” he said. “Israel cannot be perceived in the world as preventing the entry of European citizens based solely on their ethnicity.”

Gebreegziabher’s lawyer hailed the judge’s decision to protect “the fundamental constitutional rights that had been forgotten by the Interior Ministry” and criticized immigration authorities for their lack of judgment.

For their part, PIBA representatives asserted that the evidence presented by Gebreegziabher in court was not consistent with the information she had provided when she was initially questioned by border agents, who had decided to detain her after she told them that she had heard that refugees are able to work in Israel, that authorities treat them well and that Swedish people do not have a positive attitude toward foreigners.

Gebreegziabher told the court that she had been living in Sweden for 14 years, had two children and had a job as a hospital worker. In an interview with border agents, she said that the purpose of her trip was to visit family members and tour the country. She also had $1,000 in cash on her person and a return ticket booked for two weeks after her arrival.

PIBA took exception to her testimony — which was confirmed by the Swedish embassy — regarding her two daughters in Sweden, and claimed that she had said during questioning that she had no children. That was part of the basis for denying her entry, PIBA said.

The judge said that regardless of whether or not Gebreegziabher had children, there was no logic to the authority’s decision and that he had doubts as to whether she had actually told them she was childless.

“It is hard for me to understand the logic of the respondent’s officials, who thought that the petitioner would seek to trade her Swedish citizenship, and all the economic benefits that accompany it, for a status of ‘no status’ in Israel,” Yaakov said in his ruling.

During the course of the proceedings, PIBA representatives offered to grant Gebreegziabher entry on condition that she leave a deposit of NIS 30,000 ($8,679), but judge called the proposition scandalous. He also denied the state’s request to delay her release pending an appeal.

There are currently upwards of 50,000 African migrants in Israel, many of them from Sudan and Eritrea.

In early January, thousands of African asylum seekers took to the streets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to protest government policies, and to demand refugee status. After a week, the series of rallies and strikes ended, largely without success, and with government officials maintaining that the current legislation would not be changed.

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