African migrants take part in a protest against Israel's detention policy toward them.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
The High Court of Justice on Thursday put a temporary freeze on the state's policy to deport African migrants in a dramatic development which immediately brought on political statements supporting and attacking the decision.
According to the court's decision, the state is due to file a comprehensive brief supporting the policy and addressing all related proceedings currently working through the judicial system by March 26.
For the last few months, the state has been issuing notices to large segments of the remaining 30,000 plus African migrants in the country that they must accept $3,500 and deportation to a third country or they will be detained on April 1.
It appears that the current freeze may only be for the next couple weeks and that the court intends on issuing a final decision before April 1. The court also said that migrants who truly want to leave voluntarily, and are not being coerced in any way, can still be deported.
On Monday, the justices had leaned hard on the state to explain aspects of its policy of deporting African migrants, in a bizarre hearing in which justices expressed exasperation that they could not understand the state's arguments.
The basis of the policy was a prior High Court ruling permitting the state to deport the migrants as long as they chose deportation “voluntarily” the destination countries agreed to accept them and that their human rights were not violated in the destination country.
It has been widely reported that most migrants are being deported to Rwanda, while Uganda has been mentioned as a secondary destination.
The migrants, represented at the hearing by Avigdor Feldman and Itay Mack, have asked the High Court to reconsider its approval of the deportations because their rights are being systematically violated in Rwanda and Uganda.
The state’s lawyer on Monday said she was unable to answer virtually any questions about the status of the migrants since the issue is classified for national security reasons, and can answer most questions only in a closed-door hearing without the migrants’ lawyers present.
However, at one point, she let slip that there had been changes to Israel’s agreement with the destination states.
This – combined with statements both by Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely that Israel is incapable of following the migrants’ human rights status in the destination countries, and by Rwandan and Ugandan ministers saying they have no deal with Israel – aroused the justices’ curiosity.
Justice Neal Hendel asked, “Is there a new deal?”
The state lawyer replied, “There is an update to the deal.”
Deputy High Court President Hanan Melcer asked, “What do you mean that there is a small change? Before we were talking about voluntary deportation. Maybe now it says that it is permitted to deport them against their will – is that a small change?”
Hendel followed, asking, “The question is whether this is the same package deal – or is it a different deal? I do not understand if this is a different deal or not.”
The state lawyer continued to say she could only explain more in a closed forum.
Her answer was the same regarding Hotovely and the African ministers all contradicting the state’s position that migrants were being deported voluntarily and that a deal exists with destination countries permitting widespread deportation.
The broader debate about the migrants addresses both how and why they arrived in Israel. Even though most migrants crossed into Israel illegally from Egypt, international law requires protecting refugees who cannot return to their country of origin for fear of prosecution.
Both the UN and a special Israeli court for migrant issues have ruled essentially that Eritreans in Israel have, or at least likely have a right to refugee status, since they view Eritrea as a dangerous country. Some European countries have taken the opposite position and attempted, like Israel, to justify deporting migrants, arguing that they are only seeking better economic conditions – which is not grounds for refugee status.
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