Court ruling gives hope to Eritrean asylum seekers
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Court ruling gives hope to Eritrean asylum seekers

Judge says Interior Ministry’s blanket denial of asylum to Eritrean army deserters could contravene Refugee Convention

Eritrean migrants protest in front of the European Union embassy in Ramat Gan, calling for the UN to try the Eritrean leadership for crimes against humanity, on June 21, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Eritrean migrants protest in front of the European Union embassy in Ramat Gan, calling for the UN to try the Eritrean leadership for crimes against humanity, on June 21, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

In a victory for thousands of Eritrean nationals seeking asylum in Israel, an appeals tribunal in Jerusalem ruled Sunday that the government’s policy of denying refugee status to Eritrean army deserters could contravene the United Nations’ Refugee Convention.

The court also poured cold water on an interior ministry argument that overturning its legal opinion could force it to grant asylum to a large number of Eritreans and that this could have serious consequences for Israel.

“In general, desertion in and of itself doesn’t constitute grounds for granting political asylum,” wrote Judge Elad Azar. “But desertion that is seen as expressing a political view, and for which the punishment exceeds reasonable bounds, could amount to persecution in the sense in which Israel interprets the Refugee Convention.”

The judge went on: “Limiting the protection given under the Refugee Convention by not applying it to people entitled to refugee status, just because there are many of them, doesn’t comply with the Refugee Convention or the rules of Israeli administrative law…We are talking about the personal, individual rationales of many people, not about a general group rationale.”

He added: “Even in the completely theoretical case in which it would be found that refugee status had to be granted to all those asylum seekers, I believe this isn’t a quantity Israel is incapable of absorbing or that would lead to unreasonable results, given that in any case, all of them are expected to remain in Israel for a long time even if their applications are rejected.”

African migrants protest outside the Holot detention center in the Negev Desert in southern Israel, February 17, 2014. (Flash90)
African migrants protest outside the Holot detention center in the Negev Desert in southern Israel, February 17, 2014. (Flash90)

Eritrean nationals submitted 7,218 requests for asylum to Israeli authorities between 2009 and the beginning of July 2016, of which only eight were approved, with 3,105 still waiting for a response, and the rest either rejected or withdrawn, Haaretz reported Monday, using Interior Ministry figures it obtained citing freedom of information .

The appeal for which judgement was delivered was filed two years ago by Tel Aviv University’s Refugee Rights Clinic and the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants on behalf of an Eritrean asylum seeker who had deserted from the Eritrean army and broken the law by leaving the country.

The Interior Ministry’s Refugee Affairs Advisory Committee had rejected his application without discussion. The court on Sunday ordered it to reconsider.

“We can’t accept the clear trend in the cases that have been brought to this tribunal to date, in which asylum requests by Eritrean nationals that are based on claims of having evaded or deserted from military/national service are rejected at hasty meetings, without any reason, and without even being discussed by the full advisory committee on refugee affairs and brought to the interior minister for a decision,” wrote Azar.

The government has not said whether it will appeal.

Mutasim Ali, left, and his lawyer Asaf Weitzen, with the announcement of refugee status from the Interior Ministry on June 23, 2016. (courtesy Hotline for Refugees and Migrants)
Mutasim Ali, left, and his lawyer Asaf Weitzen, with the announcement of refugee status from the Interior Ministry on June 23, 2016. (courtesy Hotline for Refugees and Migrants)

Reut Michaeli, executive director of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, told Haaretz: “It’s regrettable that judicial intervention was needed so that the Interior Ministry would apply the rules of the Refugee Convention, to which Israel is committed, instead of trying to find tortuous ways of circumventing them.

“In every Western country, large portions of Eritrean asylum seekers are accepted as refugees.”

In June, hundreds of Eritrean asylum-seekers took to the streets near Tel Aviv in support of a UN report issued earlier that month into the African state’s regime, considered one of the world’s most repressive.

A report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea said crimes against humanity have been committed in a widespread and systematic manner in Eritrean detention facilities, military training camps and other locations across the country over the past 25 years.

Crimes of enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture, persecution, rape, murder and other inhumane acts have been committed as part of a campaign to instill fear in, deter opposition from and ultimately control the Eritrean civilian population since 1991 when Eritrean separatists defeated Ethiopian forces in Eritrea, the report says.

According to the United Nations, around 5,000 Eritreans risk their lives each month to flee the nation where forcible army conscription can last decades.

AFP contributed to this report.

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