'Israel to use infiltrators law to return migrants'

Interior Minister Yishai says gov't will use detention centers as part of process of returning over 60,000 African migrants home.

Eli Yishai 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Ammar Awad)
Eli Yishai 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ammar Awad)
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 Tuesday.
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.
The 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 night.
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 of Israel.”
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.
Meanwhile, Yishai said during the press conference that over 2,000 north Sudanese had already left Israel voluntarily, along with dozens of Eritreans.
Yishai 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 Israel.”
“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.
The prevention 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 borders.
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 Israel.
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 added.
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 workers.
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 Asmara.
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 back there.
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.
PIBA spokeswoman 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.