High Court: State must free jailed migrants if AG doesn’t okay deportation deal

Supreme Court gives officials 5 days to clarify position, chides government over stalled plans: ‘There is no deal. You are simply holding people in detention’

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut arrives for a court hearing on the deportation of African asylum seekers at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on April 10, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Supreme Court President Esther Hayut arrives for a court hearing on the deportation of African asylum seekers at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on April 10, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The High Court of Justice on Tuesday ruled that the attorney general must approve within five days the state’s controversial plan to forcibly deport tens of thousands of African asylum seekers to an unnamed third country — or allow the release of all asylum seekers currently jailed for refusing deportation.

Judges stated that “in the absence of an up-to-date deal…there is no longer justification to detain them.”

Earlier Supreme Court President Esther Hayut criticized the state’s plan. During a hearing, Hayut asked the state’s attorney Shosh Shmueli: “If you loaded up a plane full of asylum seekers, would they be guaranteed asylum [when they arrived] or not?”

“According to the attorney general, there is a high probability that they will be,” Shmueli said. “The attorney general is examining [the legality] of forced deportations.”

“Then there is no deal,” Hayut replied. “You are simply holding people in detention.”

“This doesn’t make sense,” she continued. “Several months ago you said a deportation deal with the other country had been finalized. Such an agreement could not have been finalized without the approval of the attorney general. So what’s changed now? Why does it need his additional approval?”

Shmueli responded that new details required the attorney general’s attention.

African migrants gather during a protest outside the Knesset in the Rose Garden in Jerusalem on January 26, 2017. (Sebi Berens/Flash90)

The state on Tuesday asked for more time to continue negotiating with the third-party African country to finalize details of the deal.

The country that could accept Israel’s asylum seekers was not named during Tuesday’s hearing, though it is widely believed to be Uganda.

Since 2015, 1,749 asylum seekers went to the unnamed country, including 128 in 2018, the state said, citing statistics that are consistent with the number of asylum seekers deported to Uganda.

Uganda has consistently denied that such a deal with Israel was in place, though there are reports that the government there has only backed away from the deal publicly, without canceling it outright.

Previously, Israel had negotiated with both Rwanda and Uganda to accept around 14,000 of Israel’s asylum seekers. But talks with Rwanda fell apart after it refused to accept asylum seekers who were deported against their will and balked at the requirement that Israeli officials follow up with asylum seekers deported there.

Israel has canceled the deal with Rwanda, according to Tuesday’s court hearing.

Asylum seekers previously deported to Uganda and Rwanda have told The Times of Israel they faced serious danger and even imprisonment after arriving in Africa without proper documents, and were not allowed to stay but forced to cross the border illegally to other countries.

In March, the state temporarily froze deportations in order to allow time to debate a petition submitted by attorney Eitay Mack on behalf of 119 Israeli activists opposed to the plan.

African asylum seekers and human rights activists protest against deportation of asylum seekers at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on March 24, 2018. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

On Sunday, Hadashot news reported that Israel was also mulling the possibility of sending Eritrean asylum seekers back to their home country, despite its poor human rights record, in keeping with a recent ruling from a Swiss court that determined that it was safe for several thousand Eritreans seeking asylum in Switzerland to return home.

Last week, Netanyahu announced he was canceling a new agreement with the UN’s refugee agency that would have seen thousands of African migrants resettled in Western nations and thousands more given temporary status in Israel. The prime minister froze the deal mere hours after announcing it, following an outcry from right-wing politicians and advocacy groups.

The agreement was designed to end the possibility of deportations of thousands of migrants from Israel to Rwanda and Uganda. Under the agreement, a minimum of 16,250 migrants would have instead been resettled in Western nations. In return, Israel would have granted temporary residency to an equal number of migrants.

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