Watchdog slams Israel’s treatment of African migrants

Policy toward Eritrean and Sudanese migrants coerces them to leave the country, Human Rights Watch report says

African refugees arrive the "Holot" detention center in southern Israel on January 26, 2014 (photo credit: Flash90)
African refugees arrive the "Holot" detention center in southern Israel on January 26, 2014 (photo credit: Flash90)

An international watchdog organization has slammed Israel for its treatment of thousands of African migrants, saying the state is forcing them to leave at grave personal risk.

In a report issued Tuesday, Human Rights Watch says Israeli authorities have compelled almost 7,000 Eritrean and Sudanese to return to their homes, where they may face serious abuse.

In response to the report, Israeli Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad said Israel was dealing with the challenge of the migrants in a legal and appropriate way.

“The growth in the voluntary repatriation of the migrants by three times from 2013 to 2014 proves that the policy is working,” she said in an email.

The HRW report says that some returning Sudanese have faced torture, arbitrary detention, and treason charges at the hands of the anti-Israel Sudanese government, while returning Eritreans also risk harassment.

For the past several years Israel has been placing thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese migrants in hardscrabble detention centers in the Negev desert. Citing statements by senior Israeli officials including former Israeli interior minister Eli Yishai, HRW says the aim of the policy is to make life so intolerable that the migrants leave Israel of their own volition.

“Destroying people’s hope of finding protection by forcing them into a corner and then claiming they are voluntarily leaving Israel is transparently abusive,” said report author Gerry Simpson. “Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel are left with the choice of living in fear of spending the rest of their days locked up in desert detention centers or of risking detention and abuse back home.”

Since 2006 some 50,000 Eritreans and Sudanese have entered Israel illegally via the Sinai desert, causing great consternation in the mainly poor Israeli neighborhoods where they have settled. Neighborhood residents say the migrants engage in petty crime and help turn the areas into slums — claims that have placed great pressure on officials to act to limit the number of migrants in the country.

For the past eight years, Israel has struggled to establish and implement a clear legal framework to deal with the large influx of migrants, which has resulted in confusing and often times conflicting ad hoc immigration policies.

Human Rights Watch’s 83-page report, titled “Make Their lives Miserable,” documents how the convoluted legal system essentially denies migrants access to fair and efficient asylum procedures, and gives pretext for Israeli authorities to unlawfully and indefinitely detain them.

The watchdog group strongly criticized Israel’s detention centers, saying that the policy of indefinite detention at the Holot facility not only reinforces an asylum system that systematically denies African migrants refugee status but coerces migrants into leaving Israel.

According to the report, by June 2014 Israel’s goal of “encouraging the illegals to leave” had resulted in the return of at least 6,400 Sudanese and 367 Eritreans to their home countries, while the Interior Ministry had only granted two Eritreans and no Sudanese refugee status.

Like many economically advanced countries in Europe and elsewhere facing their own migrant influxes, Israel offers poor African migrants relatively good opportunities to improve their economic standing. Many are now employed in menial jobs in the hotel and restaurant industries in Tel Aviv and the Red Sea resort city of Eilat.

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