An Israeli appeals court on Monday ruled that Eritreans who deserted military service in their home country and came to Israel have grounds to be considered asylum seekers.
The decision could affect thousands of Eritreans who are facing deportation under a new Israeli law.
“There is a well-founded fear of persecution because of political opinion ascribed to him by the authorities in his country as a result of his desertion from military service,” the decision said, describing the plight of a typical deserter from the Eritrean military who fled to Israel.
Israel until now has refused to process the vast majority of asylum seeker applications.
There are approximately 38,000 African migrants and asylum seekers in Israel, according to the Interior Ministry. About 72 percent are Eritrean and 20% are Sudanese. The vast majority arrived between 2006 and 2012.
Many of the Eritreans claim they fled a restrictive regime where men are often forced into a military service with slavery-like conditions.
The ruling could affect the majority of the approximately 28,000 Eritreans in Israel, as the east African country has a compulsory draft.
Thousands of Eritreans have already had their asylum requests rejected by Israel’s Interior Ministry because the government did not consider Eritrean army desertion grounds for asylum.
Thousands of the migrants were told earlier in February that they have 60 days to accept an offer to leave the country for an unnamed African destination — known through press reports to be Rwanda — in exchange for $3,500 and a plane ticket. Those who don’t leave by April 1 will be incarcerated indefinitely.
By contrast, the European Union has recognized asylum claims from 90% of Eritreans who apply for refugee status and 56% of Sudanese, according to the European Stability Institute.
Israeli officials insist the vast majority of the migrants, whom they refer to as “infiltrators,” are job seekers, and therefore do not have a special right to remain in the country after entering it illegally. The officials object to claims the policy is racist, noting that some 4,000 white Ukrainian and Georgians were deported for immigration offenses in 2017.
The UN refugee agency has said about 4,000 migrants were deported from Israel to Rwanda between 2013 and 2017. However, only seven remain in Rwanda, according to UNHCR, with many fleeing poor conditions to neighboring countries — particularly Uganda — or heading for Europe.
Thousands of asylum seekers demonstrated outside of the Rwandan Embassy in Herzliya last Wednesday for the second time in two weeks, demanding the country not accept asylum seekers deported from Israel.
Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.