State refuses to name partners in migrant transfer deal
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State refuses to name partners in migrant transfer deal

PM’s special envoy says talks to deport asylum seekers ‘in advanced stages’; civil rights groups pan move as ‘smoke screen’ for violations

Migrants from South Sudan leave their homes in Tel Aviv last year after the government arranged for them to be sent back to their home country(photo credit: Tali Mayer/Flash90)
Migrants from South Sudan leave their homes in Tel Aviv last year after the government arranged for them to be sent back to their home country(photo credit: Tali Mayer/Flash90)

A senior government official on Sunday testified that a deal in which Israel would deport illegal African migrants to third party countries was indeed in the works. Hagai Hadas, the prime minister’s special envoy on illegal migrants, refused to provide further details, or identify the states involved, in his deposition filed in court on Sunday.

Hadas testified that he was in contact with the governments of four African countries, and that talks “were in advanced stages” but not yet complete. Negotiations, the statement read, were held at the highest levels, sometimes with “direct involvement of the heads of state.”

“At the request of the countries involved, because of the high degree of diplomatic and political sensitivity, [Israel] and the [other] countries made an obligation to refrain from revealing their identity” or any other detail that could hamper the process, the deposition said.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel responded Sunday by saying talks about a deal were a “smoke screen” to hide the truth about hundreds of migrants sitting in Israeli jails for extended periods of time.

Reports on a deal in which Israel would pay a third country to absorb illegal migrants from African countries drew harsh criticism last week after a state attorney mentioned it during High Court proceedings.

During the hearing, the state’s legal council explained there was a difference between people who arrived in Israel from Eritrea and those who were from Sudan. Israel had “a temporary non-expulsion policy to Eritrea,” the attorneys said, but the reason the state wasn’t sending people back to Sudan was “mainly due to the practical problem of execution, a difficulty stemming from the lack of diplomatic relations between the countries.”

Yonatan Berman of ACRI alleged that Hadas’s deposition raised the curtain on false information provided to the High Court of Justice in last week’s hearing. At the previous court session, Berman said in a statement, the state said there was a deal with a third country — but this deposition shows there are talks, and no deal.

Berman charged that Hadas’s deposition shows “this isn’t a ‘deal’ but a ‘multi-year’ plan, which no one knows when, if at all, it will be completed and who will be affected by it. It’s no more than a smoke screen meant to give a seal of approval to the lengthy imprisonment of refugees in Israel.”

Citing Israel’s participation in the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Amnesty International said Monday that the Israeli government’s deportation of asylum-seekers was “in violation of international law” and “urges the Israeli government to end all removals of asylum-seekers to their home or third countries.”

Last week, state lawyer Yochi Gnesin told the High Court of Justice that an agreement was reached with an unidentified country to absorb some migrants from Eritrea, and that Israel was in talks with two other countries to secure a similar agreement for asylum seekers from Sudan. The details of the arrangement were not disclosed, although Gnesin said the return of migrants would be “gradual.”

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 via the Egyptian border.

Upon their arrival in Israel, many have been detained and placed in prison for infiltrating the country, before being released to fend for themselves. Most of them end up in the slums of south Tel Aviv, which sometimes leads to clashes with the local population.

Israel, which considers the Africans economic migrants, 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, while their claims are examined.

Under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which Israel is signatory to, states are obligated not to send refugees to countries where they would face physical or political danger.

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.

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