Human Rights Watch published a report on Tuesday in which it argues that Israel’s policies toward African asylum- seekers are coercing them to leave, despite the dangers they face in their countries of origin, thereby breaching international law.
According to the report, some 7,000 asylum-seekers, mostly Sudanese, have left Israel in the last two years, most of whom returned to Sudan, where some have faced “torture, arbitrary detention, and treason charges for setting foot in Israel.”
Israel’s policies of indefinite detention of asylum-seekers and other practices amounts to refoulement, coercing people back to their country of origin where they will be persecuted, which is prohibited by international law, the human-rights organization argued.
Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar insisted on Tuesday that Israel was working in accordance with the law, and that its policies “are bearing results.”
Large numbers of Eritrean and Sudanese citizens began arriving in Israel in 2006 through the Sinai Peninsula, HRW said, fleeing persecution in their native countries, which are considered by human-rights groups to be serial human rights abusers.
Claims have frequently been made in Israel that the asylum-seekers are economic migrants, but Israel’s general failure to assess claims for refugee status means that such determinations are speculative.
Approximately 51,000 asylum- seekers from Africa were present in Israel by December 2012, of which 37,000 were Eritrean and 14,000 were Sudanese.
Almost 8,000 have now left the country.
The government has largely refused to process asylum-seekers claims for refugee status, and those it has reviewed have overwhelmingly been rejected.
Instead, it has provided group protection status to the asylum- seekers against deportation.
The report said that in 2013, 83 percent of Eritrean asylum- seekers worldwide received refugee status in their country of refuge due to the widespread human rights abuses in their country and the threat of persecution upon return, whereas just 0.4%, amounting to two people, have been granted refugee status in Israel.
In 2013, 67% of Sudanese asylum- seekers worldwide received refugee status. As of March 2014, the state had interviewed 505 Sudanese applicants and decided on 25, rejecting them all, it added.
African asylum-seekers who have been in Israel for over four years are liable to an obligatory summons to the Holot holding facility in the Negev desert and the denial of any further visa extension requests.
The facility has capacity for 3,000 detainees, with some 1,600 people currently held there, while another 900 asylum- seekers are currently imprisoned in the Saharonim prison, also in the Negev, as of August 2014, according to the Interior Ministry.
They are permitted to leave the facility, but must be present for roll-call three times a day and subject to temporary imprisonment if they fail to be present for a total of three rollcalls.
HRW’s report argued that the policy of detention in Holot and the terms by which they are held breach the prohibition under international law on arbitrary detention.
Although Israel does not have the capacity to hold the more than 42,000 asylum-seekers who remain in the country, NGOs working with them say that the possibility of being detained there serves as an incentive to leave.
HRW pointed to policies such as indefinite detention of asylum-seekers in remote detention facilities, obstacles to accessing Israel’s asylum system, the rejection of 99.9% of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum claims, as well as ambiguous policies on being allowed to work and restricted access to healthcare, as prime factors in the decision of asylum-seekers, mostly Sudanese, to return to their country.
The state also provides a $3,500 cash grant to anyone voluntarily choosing to leave the country.
Organizations working with asylum-seekers point to the difficulties in renewing visas and the fact that they have to be renewed every four months or less as another significant difficulty facing them.
HRW’s report cited comments made by former interior minister Eli Yishai as proof that these policies are deliberately designed to cause them to leave.
“Until I have the possibility of expelling them, I will lock them up in order to make their lives miserable,” Yishai reportedly said in 2012.
The report also cited Sa’ar saying in January this year that “the purpose of our policies is to encourage the illegals to leave.”
Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at HRW and author of the report, said that “Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel are left with the choice of living in fear of spending the rest of their days locked up in desert detention centers or of risking detention and abuse back home.”
“Israeli officials say they want to make the lives of ‘infiltrators’ so miserable that they leave Israel, and then claim people are returning home of their own free will,” he said. “International law is clear that when Israel threatens Eritreans and Sudanese with lifelong detention, they aren’t freely deciding to leave Israel and risk harm back home.”
The authorities should “respect their obligations and protect these people while allowing them to work and live temporarily in Israel,” he said.
In 2013, 2,612 asylum-seekers left Israel, while another 5,388 left so far in 2014, according to figures from the Interior Ministry released earlier this month.
The overwhelming majority of those who left were from Sudan, most of whom returned to Sudan, while 367 Eritreans returned to Eritrea.
More than 80 asylum-seekers have departed to Ethiopia, Rwanda and Uganda.
In its report, HRW spoke to Sudanese nationals who had returned home from Israel and been subject to persecution upon their return.
Seven Sudanese nationals who returned to Sudan told HRW they left Israel because they feared indefinite detention there, and said they were detained and interrogated in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital.
Three were held for long periods during which one was tortured, a second was put in solitary confinement, and a third was charged with treason. Four others said they were interrogated and then released.
HRW does not, however, have hard data on the well-being of Sudanese nationals who returned to the country after having been in Israel, so it is not possible to know the general fate of those who have returned.
The fate of Eritreans returning from Israel is unknown, the group said, although it has documented abuse by the Eritrean authorities of those returning from other countries.
Sa’ar said the report was part of a planned process to influence the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule on an amendment passed by the Knesset in December 2013 allowing for the indefinite detention of asylum- seekers in Holot.
“Israel is working in accordance with the law and in an appropriate and proportional manner in order to deal with the phenomenon of illegal infiltrators. The increase in [the number of] infiltrators voluntary leaving Israel, which in 2014 is three times the rate of that in 2013, proves that these policies are bearing results,” Sa’ar said.