Israel will use the “infiltrators law” and the detention centers in the South as
part of a process of returning all of the over 60,000 African migrants back to
their home countries, Interior Minister Eli Yishai said on
Yishai’s comments came during a press conference to present the
findings of the “Soffer Committee,” set up some nine months ago to present
findings on how to deal with Israel’s African migrant population.
committee was supposed to present findings after two months, but finally held a
press conference this week, following a week of Israeli media stories alleging
that hundreds of African migrants had been secretly returned to their home
countries against their will.
The press conference came hours after
Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein on Tuesday morning announced that his office
had ordered a stop to all transfers of Eritreans out of the country from
Israel’s detention facilities until further notice.
The decision was
transmitted by letter from Deputy Attorney-General Dena Zilber to Population,
Immigration and Borders Authority (PIBA) head Amnon Ben-Ami on Monday
The letter said the order was in response to a report from
attorney and activist Yonatan Berman that an Eritrean citizen had been taken
from a southern detention center, flown to Uganda with a stopover in Egypt, but
then returned to Egypt.
Zilber said that “in order to prevent, heaven
forbid, a recurrence of cases like this, I reiterate and emphasize that I expect
that PIBA will follow the guidelines of the attorney-general... until a
decision on the legal issues in question – not to allow the leaving of Eritrean
citizens from PIBA detention centers to any destination outside of the borders
The exact circumstances of the transfer are disputed, but
depending on those circumstances, the transfer and any similar ones could have
violated Israel’s treaty obligations under international law.
Yishai said during the press conference that over 2,000 north Sudanese had
already left Israel voluntarily, along with dozens of Eritreans.
said that he “doesn’t differentiate between north Sudan and South Sudan or
between Eritrea and South Sudan,” arguing that like the around 1,000 South
Sudanese who were returned home last summer, all of the Eritreans and north
Sudanese will also be sent back.
North Sudan is an enemy state and
citizens returning after having been in Israel stand to face persecution, as do
Eritreans who flee the country and return to the state, considered one of the
world’s worst human rights violators.
Though the Interior Ministry does
not see eye to eye with the Foreign Ministry on the migrants issue, Yishai said
he would work with the Foreign Ministry to ensure that all of the “infiltrators”
leave the country, arguing that the detention centers in the South will give
Israel a place to house all of the migrants who “will return willfully, because
they won’t have a place to work and they won’t have a reason to stay in
“We will get all of them out of here legally, willfully or not
willfully through the use of the detention centers. We will use very tough,
painful enforcement of the infiltrators law and move them into the detention
centers, as soon as they are completed.” There is room for an estimated 15,000
detainees at these detention centers.
The recommendations of the
committee are two-pronged, focusing on the prevention of “infiltration” and
dealing with those “infiltrators” already in the country.
phase includes “studying the path of infiltration,” building new fences –
presumably on the Jordanian border – strengthening the current fences, and
providing new “legal backing” for Israeli soldiers operating on the
The report also addresses human rights organizations, calling
for “the adoption of policy for dealing with rights groups that await
infiltrators arriving at the fences,” as well as new entry regulations for the
detention centers, directed at “negative elements,” including “inciters,” as
well as greater penalties for those helping infiltrators defraud
The plan does call for greater efforts to determine which of the
migrants are refugees and which are infiltrators.
Yishai said he does not
support giving work permits for African migrants to replace the new foreign
workers Israel brings in annually, and also called for greater enforcement of
regulations against employing illegal migrants.
Ran Cohen, head of
Physicians for Human Rights Israel, said that the reports’ findings “run
contrary to the human rights obligations Israel has signed on to and to
international law.” Cohen said the committee ignored the personal stories of
refugees, the percentages by which such refugee claims are approved outside
Israel, adding that “it appears that the council is not convinced that refugees
are human beings with rights.”
Cohen also criticized Yishai for the
committee’s statements against human rights organizations, which he called
“warped and obtuse.”
Orit Marom of the Assaf refugee aid organization,
said of the recommendations that Israel is witnessing “the deportation of
asylum- seekers from Sudan and Eritrea to death and torture in their home
countries, against the most basic morals and Israeli and international law.” In
a reality where a man must choose between indefinite jail and freedom and
deportation, there is no choice and therefore no “willful return,” she
When Yishai announced the formation of the committee, to be run by
Prof. Arnon Soffer of the University of Haifa and the National Defense College,
he said that it was his intention “to do everything I can to solve the
infiltrator problem in Israel once and for all.”
Soffer was also one of
the architects of the Gaza disengagement plan and has long held the position
that the majority of the African asylum-seekers in Israel are migrant
In a 2009 report for the University of Haifa, he called NGOs
that assist African migrants “the cartel of human rights organizations,”
alleging that many of the NGO workers were post-Zionists looking to destroy the
country’s Jewish-Zionist character.
Tuesday’s decision by the
attorney-general followed reports that an asylum-seeker, Tesfamihret
Habtemariam, had been deported to Uganda and then to Cairo, where he now faces
return to Eritrea.
According to Eritrean-Swedish human rights activist
Meron Estefanos, who contacted The Jerusalem Post about the story Sunday night,
Habtemariam left Israel for Uganda on Thursday and was told at the Ugandan
airport that he would not be allowed to enter.
He said he was kept
waiting for four days at the airport before Uganda decided to deport him to
Eritrea by way of Cairo, where he is now awaiting a flight to
Habtemariam’s private attorney, Lior Peretz, said that he met
with his client on many occasions over the past months, and that during the
hearings at the court at Saharonim Prison, he requested to be sent back to
Uganda, where his father reportedly lives.
Peretz said his client was
happy to return to Uganda and was not forced to by the state or do so solely due
to the threat of longer incarceration.
Peretz said he sounded very at
ease and happy once he heard that he had a ticket to Uganda, and would be moving
The attorney said he has not heard from his client since
Thursday, though he promised to call him once he arrived. In addition, Peretz
said that once he heard about what reportedly happened to Habtemariam, he told
another client in the process of agreeing to return to Uganda to put things on
hold for now.
In mid-February, the Hotline for Migrant Workers reported
that a group of 25 Eritreans agreed to return to Uganda, but were instead taken
to meet with a representative of the Eritrean embassy and told they would be
returned to Eritrea. The group refused to be sent back.
The HMW and the
UN High Commissioner for Refugees both said there does not appear to be any sort
of coordination between Israeli authorities and the Ugandan government on the
matter of resettling Eritrea asylum seekers in Uganda.
Sabine Haddad said the agency is checking reports of the incident, but if Uganda
were to return a migrant they would do so to the country from which they came,
not to a third or fourth country.
Returns of migrants from prison are no
longer taking place, she added.