Israel claims unnamed African country will take in illegal Eritreans

Surprised Foreign Ministry says it knows nothing of deal that could see deportation of tens of thousands of migrants

Ilan Ben Zion is an AFP reporter and a former news editor at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative image of African migrants in south Tel Aviv (Nicky Kelvin/Flash90/File)
Illustrative image of African migrants in south Tel Aviv (Nicky Kelvin/Flash90/File)

Israel and an unspecified African country reportedly reached an agreement to deport illegal Eritrean migrants to its territory, and Israel is also ironing out a deal with two other countries to act as a way station for deported north Sudanese migrants, a state lawyer told the High Court on Sunday.

Speaking during proceedings in an appeals case against the incarceration of illegal immigrants, state attorney Yochi Gnesin said that Jerusalem struck a deal with an unnamed state that would take in Eritrean asylum seekers who entered Israel illegally. Another deal with two other countries, also unnamed, would ensure the deportation of illegal Sudanese immigrants from Israel, she claimed.

Eritrean and Sudanese nationals make up roughly 90 percent of the 60,000 African migrants currently in Israel. Over the past few years tens of thousands of  migrants fleeing forced conscription and slave labor in Eritrea and civil war in Sudan have made the trek of hundreds of kilometers to Israel on foot, crossing the Egyptian border.

Upon their arrival in Israel, many have been detained and placed in prison for infiltrating the border, before being released to fend for themselves.

Israel does not automatically recognize the asylum claims of African migrants and does not generally grant them refugee status. Instead, it grants them a temporary release permit from prison, which allows them to remain in the country.

The international Convention relating to the Status of Refugees to which Israel is signatory stipulates that asylum seekers cannot be sent to countries where they risk persecution.

Human rights organizations appealed the legality of a new law that would allow the state to incarcerate migrants for up to three years.

The Foreign Ministry declined official comment on the matter Sunday, and Gnesin’s claims have been met with a good deal of skepticism. Ministry sources told Israel Radio that they were unaware which country the deal had been struck with.

Hotline for Migrant Workers head Reut Michaeli reacted to the statement by saying the government was “telling the court fables,” according to Israel Radio.

Emmanuel Yamani, an Eritrean migrant who’s lived in Israel for five years, told Channel 2 that the migrant community is fearful of the prospect of deportation to Africa.

“As I see it, there’s no difference between shipping me off to my country or to any other African country. Some African countries have dictatorships and there too my life would be in danger,” Yamani said in response to the state attorney’s statement.

“I am very afraid this matter will take effect,” he added. “I spoke with many of my friends in south Tel Aviv, and it doesn’t sound logical to them that they’d be forced to return to a dangerous place for them to live, and they’re very concerned about this decision.”

Last year Israel oversaw the transfer of several hundred asylum seekers from South Sudan back to their home county after it declared independence in July 2011.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday praised his government’s efforts to curb illegal immigration to Israel following the publication of statistics indicating that the number of migrants was dropping.

“The fence we built in the south achieves the result for which it was erected,” he said in a statement. “As opposed to more than 2,000 illegal migrants that entered Israel [per month] a year ago today… [in May] only two crossed the border, and they were arrested.

“Now we need to focus on repatriating illegal migrants found here, and this task we will also accomplish,” Netanyahu said.

Construction of the formidable 230-kilometer-long (140 miles) fence along the Egyptian border was completed in January.

Shas MK Eli Yishai, the former interior minister and an outspoken advocate of deporting and incarcerating illegal migrants, said in response to Gnesin’s claim that the move was “another step in the right direction for removing all illegal migrants.”

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