Few jailed Eritrean army deserters freed, despite deputy AG’s instructions
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Few jailed Eritrean army deserters freed, despite deputy AG’s instructions

Only 12 of 280 held asylum seekers reportedly released following court case, as migration authority chooses narrow interpretation of Dina Zilber’s orders

Eritrean demonstrators chanted "Refugees, not infiltrators," outside of the Rwandan Embassy in Herzilya on January 22, 2018. (Melanie Lidman/ Times of Israel)
Eritrean demonstrators chanted "Refugees, not infiltrators," outside of the Rwandan Embassy in Herzilya on January 22, 2018. (Melanie Lidman/ Times of Israel)

Israeli authorities have freed only 12 of 280 Eritrean army deserters held at a detention facility in the southern Negev Desert — despite a court ruling last month that desertion could qualify Eritrean migrants for legal refugee status, the Haaretz newspaper reported Monday.

In March, the Jerusalem appeals court ruled that an asylum-seeking petitioner who had deserted the Eritrean army and been jailed there for doing so qualified for asylum in Israel, having proved a “well-founded fear of persecution.”

Following the ruling, Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber instructed the Population and Immigration Authority to release Eritreans in similar circumstances from the Saharonim detention facility.

The authority, left to decide on the interpretation of those circumstances, opted for a narrow definition of the term and chose to release only those whose circumstances were identical to the court petitioner — in that they not only deserted from the Eritrean army but were also jailed there for doing so.

The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants said, “We implore the state to extend the decision to the hundreds of others detained at Saharonim and to the thousands more whose requests were denied because of a [government] opinion that army desertion was not a reason for asylum.”

Eritrean activists held a mock slave auction to protest planned deportations outside of the Rwandan embassy in Herzilya on January 22, 2018. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

The Justice Ministry is meanwhile planning to appeal the Jerusalem court’s decision, fearing that it could force the state to reconsider many rejected asylum requests.

In January, the cabinet approved a plan and budget to deport thousands of Sudanese and Eritrean migrants.

Prior to that, the Population and Immigration Authority notified the migrants that as of January 1, they had to return to their own countries or to third-party countries (widely reported to be Rwanda and Uganda), or be sent to jail until they were deported. According to the government plan, migrants who chose to leave by March 31 would receive a payment of $3,500 as well as free airfare and other incentives.

In this February 11, 2018, photo, Eritrean migrant Yohannes Tesfagabr, one of the tens of thousands of African migrants Israel has targeted for deportation, recounts his journey to The Associated Press in Kampala, Uganda. (AP Photo/Stephen Wandera)

In March, the Supreme Court froze the deportations in response to a petition and ordered the state to clarify its policy.

The government subsequently asked for more time and the court agreed to extend the deadline from March 26 to April 9.

On March 28, the Population Authority’s director Shlomo Mor-Yosef floated the idea of deporting only single, male, working-age asylum seekers and allowing women, children and married men to receive permanent status to stay in the country.

Melanie Lidman contributed to this report.

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