'IDF staged Africa refugee infiltration'

NGOs say army is violating non-refoulment principle to trick Egyptians into taking unwanted exiles.

Sudanese refugees 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Sudanese refugees 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The army tried to stage an infiltration by 25 African asylum-seekers who were already in IDF custody in order to trick the Egyptians into taking them back, a reserve soldier charged, in an affidavit to the High Court of Justice filed last week by five human rights organizations. The soldier also charged that in violation of an army regulation called "coordinated and immediate return," his unit was ordered to return 10 asylum-seekers who had just crossed the border back into Egypt, without interviewing them to see whether their lives were in danger. According to the regulation, based on an informal agreement with Egyptian commanders on the other side of the border, Egypt will accept asylum-seekers back into their territory as long as the return takes place immediately after the infiltration. During the brief time the infiltrators are in Israeli hands, the soldiers must interview them to determine whether their lives are in danger. In case they are uncertain of whether to return the asylum-seeker to Egypt or not, they must consult with a representative of the Military Advocate-General's Office. The petitioners, Hotline for Foreign Workers, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Israel Religious Action Center, Physicians for Human Rights, and the Organization to Assist Refugees and Asylum Seekers, charged that in both cases described by the soldier, the army had violated the principle of non-refoulement, which states that a country may not expel a foreigner seeking asylum if his life is in danger. Along with the submission of the affidavit, the petitioners called on the High Court to issue an interim injunction prohibiting the army from applying the "coordinated and immediate return" regulation unless they add terms granting the infiltrators the right to receive a proper hearing of their asylum requests. The court has already rejected that request once before on the grounds that the state had promised "that the implementation of the regulation would be tightened at the top-most echelons." The original petition was filed on August 28, 2007, after reports emerged that soldiers had forced 91 asylum-seekers back into Egypt without hearing their requests. In response, the army said the returns had been exceptions to the rule. According to the soldier's affidavit, the state's response was untrue. He wrote in his affidavit that on June 9, 2009, soldiers forced back 25 asylum-seekers who had been detained by the IDF on June 7, 8, and 9. Before the planned "immediate return," the soldier asked the deputy brigade commander why the army was returning the asylum-seekers this way. "He replied that 'official Egypt' is not prepared to accept these people back into its territory, but that there is an understanding 'at field level' whereby if the return is 'hot,' that is, if the asylum-seeker is caught at the border fence or immediately after crossing the fence, the Egyptians will agree to take him back. However, if he is already in Israel, they will not. "As a result, in order to create the impression that the asylum-seekers had just arrived in Israel, the soldiers must push them back over the fence into Egyptian territory and then fire flares, shoot in the air and shout as if they have just discovered an infiltration. The light, the shooting and the shouting is meant to alert the Egyptians." The fake infiltration was called off because the soldiers spotted Egyptians at the site of the return. However, a few days later, on June 13, troops from the soldier's unit detained 10 asylum seekers just after they crossed the Egyptian border. There was no one trained to question them, but the sapper spoke Arabic and asked them where they came from. They answered that they had come from Eritrea. "We called our command post and the order was to transfer the asylum-seekers back to Egypt," the soldier continued in his affidavit. "The soldiers expressed bitterness over the order, so our deputy battalion commander called the deputy brigade commander, who explained to him that everything was legal and authorized by the Military Advocate-General's Office. "The deputy brigade commander said that 'if none of them are them are from Darfur, they can all be returned.' We were just told to write down their names." As a result of these alleged violations of the army's own regulation, the petitioners asked the court a second time for an interim injunction.