Israeli Court: Flight from Eritrean army is basis for refugee status

Under the Refugee Convention, which Israel is a party to, persons who cannot return to their country of origin because of threat of persecution must be granted refugee status.

February 15, 2018 13:13
2 minute read.
Sudanese and Eritrean immigrants protesting

Sudanese and Eritrean immigrants protest their treatment in front of the Knesset. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

A special Jerusalem appeals court for refugee issues has said that flight from service in the Eritrean Army can serve as a basis for being granted refugee status, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants announced on Thursday.

The ruling in the case, filed by the Tel Aviv University Clinic for Refugee Rights, could pressure the state to grant refugee status to a larger number of Eritreans just as it has launched a campaign to deport African migrants to a third African country, generally believed to be Rwanda.

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The court decision was a clear moral victory for African migrants, but even if some additional refugee applications were granted, it was unclear how much it would change the broader picture on the ground.

Already in September 2016, the same special appeals court had ruled that the state must reconsider across-the-board whether Eritreans who came to Israel illegally should get refugee status.

But when the state appealed, the Jerusalem District Court overruled that ruling in January 2017, saying the special court had not fully studied the legal and factual issues. Still, the district court left room for the special refugee court to make the same ruling now if it studied the evidence further.

It was unclear if the state would appeal again to the Jerusalem District Court.

Until now, the Interior Ministry has nearly universally rejected applications by Eritreans for refugee status, on the grounds that fleeing military service, the reason many of them give for leaving their country for Israel, is not included in the definition of being “persecuted,” which would obligate Israel to give them refugee status.

Under the Refugee Convention, which Israel is a party to, persons who cannot return to his country of origin because of threat of persecution must be granted refugee status.

The special court had said back in September 2016 that the state could not use such a sweeping argument to dismiss refugee applications, and certainly not on the basis of concerns that too many Eritreans getting refugee status at the same time would threaten the state’s Jewish character or similar considerations.

Citing UN and other reports, the approximately 28,000 Eritrean migrants who came to Israel illegally, represented by the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, say that service in the Eritrean Army is for many a sentence to torture or death in a country where the rule of law is weak and the army is used to achieve many oppressive goals.

The state, in contrast, has cited British and Danish government reports that say fleeing the Eritrean Army is not a basis to receive refugee status, but that and other arguments were unsuccessful in the Israeli court.

But the state did not make any major change in its practices after the September 2016 decision and even if the current decision holds, the government could try to raise other grounds for rejecting Eritrean migrants or for rejecting specific individuals.

After striking down several earlier state policies as unconstitutional, the High Court of Justice has already nominally endorsed the state’s current policy of giving single male migrants of working age a “choice” of either being deported (with $3,500 each) or being detained in Israel.

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