Justice minister: Israel will send back asylum seekers if Eritrea cancels draft

Ayelet Shaked’s comments come amid speculation Eritrea-Ethiopia peace treaty could lead to cancellation of unlimited conscription

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked attends a Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee meeting in the Israeli parliament on July 9, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked attends a Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee meeting in the Israeli parliament on July 9, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said Tuesday that Eritrean asylum seekers will be deported immediately if the African country cancels its military draft.

Speaking at a Jewish Home party conference in Tel Aviv, Shaked noted the recent rapprochement between the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea, which some say could lead to an end to mandatory unlimited conscription in Eritrea.

“If, following the agreement, the duty to enlist is canceled, Israel will be able to return the infiltrators to Eritrea, which is great news for the residents of south Tel Aviv,” she said.

Nongovernmental organizations and civil rights groups in Israel and abroad consider migrants from Eritrea (and Sudan) to be refugees, while opponents consider them “infiltrators” who come to Israel for economic reasons.

In the past decades, many Eritreans fled the country to avoid compulsory, indefinitely prolonged military conscription, which has been criticized by the United Nations Human Rights Council as a severe human rights violation.

The majority of African asylum seekers arrived in Israel between 2006 and 2012. In 2010, the height of the wave of asylum seekers crossing from the Sinai to Israel, 1,300 people illegally crossed the border each month. Once they crossed the border, Israeli soldiers brought them for processing to holding facilities coordinated with the Population Authority. Afterward, many were given bus tickets to Tel Aviv’s central bus station, but no other services.

Protesters march in a demonstration in south Tel Aviv against Israel’s planned deportation of African migrants and refugees, February 24, 2018. (Miriam Herschlag/ Times of Israel)

Shaked’s comments came after the latest batch of conscripts in Eritrea were told, according to Reuters, that their service would last no longer than 18 months. Still, sources familiar with the matter told Haaretz that it was too early to declare the end of compulsory conscription for life in Eritrea.

On Tuesday it was reported that Israel’s interior minister has been reexamining the option of expelling African asylum seekers to Eritrea and Sudan, in the wake of the peace treaty signed last month between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The renewed initiative appears to replace a United Nations proposal to expel half the asylum seekers and settle the rest in Israel — a proposal that was accepted and then rejected by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu amid mounting public pressure within 24 hours in April.

In this grab taken from video provided by ERITV, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, center right, is welcomed by Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki as he disembarks the plane, in Asmara, Eritrea, July 8, 2018. (ERITV via AP)

According to the interior ministry, there are around 42,000 African migrants in Israel, half of them children and women or men with families.

About 72 percent of the migrants are Eritrean and 20% are Sudanese, who in many cases fled genocide in Darfur as well as fighting between Sudan and South Sudan.

In 2014, Israel completed construction of a 242-kilometer (150-mile) electronic fence along the border with Sinai. Illegal immigration through Sinai dropped to just 11 cases in 2016, and 0 in 2017.

Melanie Lidman contributed to this report.

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