Rights groups decry repatriation of Eritrean migrants

14 asylum seekers leave Israel under ‘voluntary return’ procedure; activists claim they were coerced

African immigrants seen at a detention facility located in the south of Israel. August, 2012. (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
African immigrants seen at a detention facility located in the south of Israel. August, 2012. (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Human rights groups accused the government Sunday of forcefully repatriating Eritrean migrants held in detention facilities. The accusations came amid reports that Israel shipped out 14 migrants on a flight to Eritrea, via Turkey, on Sunday morning.

According to Army Radio, 15 people were originally slated to leave, but one person changed his mind at the last minute and decided to remain in Israel.

The Population, Borders and Immigration Authority (PIBA) refused to comment on the report, but said “infiltrators leave continually” as part of the “voluntary return” procedure. Israel refers to the migrants, many of whom are asylum seekers, as “infiltrators” because they enter Israel illegally, crossing the Egyptian border.

As a signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Israel is forbidden to send asylum seekers back to their countries of origin if their life or freedom would be threatened by returning. However, the repatriation effort received legal approval two weeks ago when Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein authorized a new procedure approving the repatriation of migrants who had signed a voluntary return agreement.

According to Haaretz, the procedure entails a detailed, videotaped interview with the migrant, with an interpreter present. In addition, applicants must submit their reasons for wanting to leave Israel, in their own words and their own handwriting. The interview and the documents are then evaluated by a representative of the border agency and by the Custody Court.

However, human rights groups say the very fact that the migrants asking for repatriation are behind bars means their return is not voluntary.

“If the choice given to the asylum seekers is between sitting in an Israeli prison indefinitely and being tortured in Eritrea, it is not a real choice,” charged Sara Robinson, head of refugees issues at Amnesty International Israel. “The government must release the asylum seekers from custody and determine which of them is eligible for protection under international standards.”

“I’d rather die in my country than be imprisoned forever in Israel,” one Eritrean held in the Saharonim detention facility reportedly told Amnesty International.

Reut Michaeli, who directs the Hotline for Migrant Workers, said that if the facts of the matter are true then it is “highly cynical and immoral to call the repatriation, carried out by pressuring imprisoned asylum seekers — with no prospects of freedom — ‘voluntary return.'”

“It is the difficult conditions in the Saharonim detention facility and the pressure put on the inmates, which recently led them to hold a hunger strike, that made some of them consent to return to their homeland, despite the dangers they face there,” added Michaeli.

Most of the 55,000 African migrants who made it to Israel over the past decade claim they were escaping forced, open-ended conscription in Eritrea or war in Sudan. Critics counter that most are job seekers attracted to Israel’s wealthy economy and plentiful jobs in hotels, restaurants, and cleaning.

International groups have criticized Israel’s handling of the migrants. Over 70 percent of Eritreans who request asylum in Europe are granted refugee status. Of the 1,400 requests filed by Eritreans in Israel for refugee status, the vast majority have gone without a response. Only 17 received any response, all of them denials.

According to Amnesty, Israel is refusing to allow the migrants to even file a request for refugee status.

Since the completion of the 250-kilometer-long barrier along Israel’s southern border earlier this year, the influx of African migrants into the country has come to a standstill.

Last year, Israel quietly repatriated hundreds of migrants to newly independent South Sudan. Also, in early June, Israel said it found a third country that agreed to accept African migrants. It won’t identify the country, and it’s unclear when anyone will be transferred.

Haviv Gur Rettig contributed to this report

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