High court temporarily halts deportation of African migrants
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High court temporarily halts deportation of African migrants

Court gives the government, which suspended the controversial plan Wednesday in advance of ruling, until March 26 to respond to petition

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut (C) and judges Hanan Melcer and Neil Hendel arrive to hear an an appeal against deportation of African asylum seekers at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on March 12, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Supreme Court President Esther Hayut (C) and judges Hanan Melcer and Neil Hendel arrive to hear an an appeal against deportation of African asylum seekers at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on March 12, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The High Court of Justice on Thursday temporarily suspended a government plan to deport tens of thousands of African migrants back to the continent against their will.

The move comes a day after the government said it would freeze the planned deportations in advance of the expected court ruling, while it worked to address legal questions surrounding the campaign.

The emergency injunction was issued in response to a petition signed by 120 refugees and asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan.  The court gave the government until March 26 to respond to the petition and, in the meantime, instructed it to suspend its controversial plan to deport migrants to third-party countries. The suspension on deporting them to a third country would remain in place until then

The court wrote in its ruling that the injunction does not affect those migrants who choose to leave the country voluntarily.

African migrants march from Holot detention center to the Saharonim Prison, an Israeli detention facility for African asylum seekers, on February 22, 2018. (AFP / MENAHEM KAHANA),

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely slammed the court’s ruling.

“The High Court’s decision today which prevents the state from deporting infiltrators to a third-party country prevents the governments from dealing with one of the most difficult social issues in the State of Israel,” she said. “If the court recognizes Israel’s sovereignty to decide who can enter its gates — like every other country in the world — it cannot, time after time, harm its legitimate right to deport infiltrators.”

Israel recently launched a campaign to deport unmarried male migrants to third-party countries (widely reported to be Rwanda and Uganda) with jail time facing those who refuse to go. The Africans, nearly all from dictatorial Eritrea and war-torn Sudan, say they fled for their lives and face renewed danger if they return. The vast majority arrived between 2006 and 2012.

On Tuesday, Israel closed the Holot detention center, an open air facility where the state housed illegal migrants largely from Eritrea and Sudan. The move is seen as a major step toward implementing the deportation plan.

In the four years since the center opened, approximately 13,000 male illegal immigrants have spent time there. The desert facility was considered “open,” meaning those housed there could leave during the day.

Approximately half of the 38,000 asylum seekers could be deported under the plan. Women, married men, and children will not be deported under “the first stage” of the deportations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said.

The expulsion policy, which offers each migrant $3,500 and a plane ticket, has been condemned by the United Nations as chaotic, poorly executed, and unsafe. Asylum seekers previously deported to Uganda and Rwanda have told the Times of Israel they faced serious danger and even imprisonment after arriving in Africa without proper documents.

Israel considers the vast majority of them to be job seekers and says it has no legal obligation to keep them. Israeli officials commonly refer to them as “infiltrators.”

In recent weeks, groups of Israeli pilots, doctors, writers, former ambassadors, American Jewish leaders, and Holocaust survivors have appealed to Netanyahu to halt the deportation plan, warning it was unethical and would cause grave damage to Israel’s self-described image as a light unto the nations.

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