Israel must suspend the practice of “voluntary deportations” of Eritrean migrants back to their homeland and begin comprehensively examining their asylum requests, a group of Eritrean migrants said during a press conference in south Tel Aviv on Sunday morning.

During the press conference, they handed out a letter they penned to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Sunday, in which they refuted the view that the returns signed by prisoners in Israeli detention centers are voluntary, saying “despite the fact that they have chosen to call it ‘voluntary return,’ when they have no choice about their return, [that] means it is not voluntary.

“Our friends were deported to the place they fled, and their agreement was secured through extortion,” the letter continued. “Because of the exploitation of their situation at the hands of the government, their lives are in danger.”

The group of migrants then asked Netanyahu to suspend the “voluntary” returns – saying that they entail returning the asylum seekers to the same regime from which they fled lifelong military service and a lack of democracy.

“It is important to us to emphasize that we didn’t come here in order to bother Israelis or destroy their homes,” the letter read. “We didn’t come here to look for work or money. In every place on Earth they recognize the fact that people who flee Eritrea need protection until the regime changes and they can return home.”

Earlier this month, a group of 15 Eritreans was deported from Israel to Eritrea after they signed an agreement with Israeli authorities to leave. All 15 signed the agreement while in detention centers in the South, and their only alternative to “voluntary” deportation was to stay imprisoned indefinitely under the anti-infiltration law.

According to Interior Ministry figures, the overwhelming majority of the around 55,000 African migrants in Israel are from Eritrea.

The press conference on Sunday was the first of its kind held specifically by members of the Eritrean community about their situation, and not by Israeli-run NGOs, even though a few Israeli activists were on hand to help out. They held the meeting on the back porch of a small community center inside a house in the Shapira neighborhood of south Tel Aviv, and handed out information booklets and thumb drives with information about Eritrea and migrants who have returned to the country written in Hebrew.

The migrants also shared information about some Eritreans who have returned in recent weeks and months, including one man who returned earlier this month and whose brother and other relatives in Israel say have not been heard from since, according to the activists. The migrants said that according to sources within the Eritrean Army, he is currently in jail and has undergone torture.

Another man reportedly was told on the return flight by an Eritrean ambassador that “you’ll have a few quiet months when you get back then you’ll be sent back to the army to do hard time.”

A third man is also reportedly being held in a detention center near the Asmara airport following his deportation two weeks ago, the activists said.

One of the activists, Dawit Demoz, said of the asylum seekers community: “We want to return to our country but to return us now is a death sentence for us and for our children. We turn to the Knesset and ask that they view us as human beings.”

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