Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority began serving official notices Thursday to several Sudanese and Eritrean migrants held in the Holot detention facility, informing the detainees of their impending deportation from Israel to third-party countries in Africa, and warning them that refusing to comply with the orders would result in their indefinite imprisonment.
Seven detainees at the facility, all of whom were denied asylum seeker status by authorities, received notices as of Thursday, Israel Radio reported. The notices warned the migrants that they must leave Israeli territory within 30 days, adding that a failure to exit the country within the allotted period would result in the detainees’ incarceration at the Saharonim prison.
“After working hard in recent months, we have found you [an African] country willing to receive you,” read the notice, originally written in the Tigrinya language, spoken primarily in parts of Eritrea and Ethiopia.
“The country will provide you with work and residency permits. Over the past decade, this country has been in a good state of development. Ten thousand citizens of the country who migrated returned to it. The state has created job opportunities for other citizens of Africa. In the last 10 years, the country has seen substantial economic improvement. It is considered one of the largest countries in Africa and it depends on exports from America and Europe. Because of the improvement in the country’s politics they have a strong government, and good systems of education, health and transportation and other developments,” the notice added, according to Haaretz.
The notice did not specify the name of the country to which the detainees would be transferred, Haaretz reported.
Until now, Israeli authorities have pressured asylum seekers — or “illegal infiltrators,” as the government terms them — most of whom are Eritrean or Sudanese nationals, to leave the Jewish state via a slew of measures, including incarceration in minimum-security facilities and incentives such as cash grants and free tickets back to their home countries.
No migrants have been deported without signing a declaration that they were leaving Israel of their own free will.
A new bill by the Interior Ministry, however, aims to expel asylum seekers detained in the Holot detention center, with or without their consent, to third-party countries in Africa, the names of which have yet to be formally announced. One unnamed source told Haaretz Tuesday that the destinations would most likely be Rwanda and Uganda.
Holot is an “open” facility in southern Israel that is currently home to some 2,500 African asylum seekers. Inmates are required to check in during morning and evening hours but are free to leave during the day. The maximum detention term in the facility is mandated by law as 20 months.
Initially, migrants whose application for refugee status has yet to be processed will not be slated for eviction until a court can mull over their appeal.
Refusal to leave would lay the grounds for indefinite incarceration in the Saharonim prison, near Israel’s border with Egypt.
Interior Minister Gilad Erdan said that deported refugees will be secure in a third country, where they will not face reprisals for desertion or for traveling to Israel, which is considered an enemy state in Sudan, and which has no relations with Eritrea.
“The move will encourage infiltrators to leave the State of Israel in a safe and dignified manner and will effectively fulfill our duty toward the citizens of Israel and south Tel Aviv, who will be able to return the fabric of life they were used to,” Erdan told Channel 2 news Tuesday.
“They will receive fair treatment in [the designated] countries set to absorb them,” he said.
The bill received backing from the Justice Ministry and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein.
Authorities indicated that Israel would fund plane tickets, temporary accommodation and allowances to all prospective deportees.
Those who agree to leave will be given 30 days to pack and organize their affairs. Those who refuse will face a hearing that could result in further incarceration, a statement released by the Interior Ministry read.
Expulsion to a third country is largely unprecedented in the Western world. Italy and Australia signed similar agreements with third-party countries — Italy with Libya and Australia with Malaysia — but both proposals were shot down by local courts. In both cases, courts ruled the bills inconsistent with international law and the 1951 UN convention on refugees — to which Israel is also a party.
Thus far, Israel has recognized only four Eritreans and Sudanese nationals as official asylum seekers, out of a total of 5,573 who applied for that status.
A Supreme Court injunction in September 2014 declared the detention of asylum seekers for an unspecified amount of time as unlawful and ordered the Holot facility closed by December 22. The court granted the government three months to find an alternative policy before it repealed the law completely.
In light of that ruling, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, together with the Interior Ministry, made new amendments to the law in November that allowed for illegal immigrants to be detained for up to 20 months without trial — a change that, in effect, allowed Holot to remain open.
Over the course of 2014, 8,500 migrants residing in Israel left the state of their own volition, 7,000 of them back to their home countries, and 1,500 to other countries that granted them asylum status. Some have complained that after they returned to their home countries they were harshly abused.
Avi Lewis contributed to this report.