“We would rather Die in Eritrea than be imprisoned forever in Israel” Eritrean Returnees
Israel flew 14 Eritreans back to their home country on Sunday, human rights organizations say.
According to reports, 14 Eritrean nationals who had been held at the Saharonim detention facility in southern Israel were flown to Eritrea via Turkey after signing consent forms. One man changed his mind after signing the documents and remained in custody at Saharonim.
The group’s deportation was carried out in accordance with a new protocol, approved two weeks ago by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, regulating the “voluntary return” of migrants from Eritrea and Sudan being held in detention facilities in Israel.
The protocol contradicts the position of the United Nations and human rights groups, according to which an individual cannot legally consent to repatriation while in custody. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has explicitly said that someone being asked to choose between lengthy imprisonment and returning to his country, at the risk of losing his life, cannot be said to be returning “voluntarily.”
The Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority refused to confirm the accuracy of the reports, saying only that “infiltrators leave continually” as part of the “voluntary return” protocol and that anyone who sought to leave may do so under the protocol.
The protocol calls for a detailed, videotaped interview with the applicant, in the presence of an interpreter. In addition, applicants must submit their reasons for wanting to leave Israel, in their own words and handwriting. The interview and the documents are to be evaluated by a representative of the border agency and by the Custody Court. This protocol does not apply to migrants who have applied for asylum and are waiting for a response.
Human rights organizations say the border agency recently began pressuring imprisoned migrants to consent to “voluntary” repatriation, and that imprisoned asylum seekers are taken to the Eritrean Embassy in Tel Aviv on a daily basis to fill out the forms. Imprisoned asylum seekers say Population, Immigration and Border Authority officials urge them to sign the documents, saying the alternative is indefinite detention.
“I’d rather die in my country than be imprisoned forever in Israel,” one Eritrean held in Saharonim told Amnesty International.
The director of Hotline for Migrant Workers, Reut Michaeli, slammed the new protocol. “If this is true, this is a cynical and immoral action, calling this procedure ‘voluntary’ while applying pressure on asylum seekers held in difficult conditions for months without any hope, and then having them sign a document saying they are leaving of their own free will,” Michaeli says.
“The asylum seekers are told they will not receive asylum in Israel and will remain jailed for years,” Michaeli says, adding, “The difficult conditions in Saharonim and the pressure applied on the migrants, who recently held ahunger strike, cause some of them to return to their homeland despite the risks.”
Amnesty International Israel is also concerned that the migrants’ consent was not given entirely of their free will, “taking into account that they are deprived of due, efficient processing of their asylum requests, that there are harsh steps taken against asylum seekers, and racist declarations inciting xenophobia, often made by publicly elected officials.”
Sara Robinson, Refugee Rights Coordinator at Amnesty Israel, says, “If the asylum seekers must choose between indefinite incarceration and jail and torture in Eritrea – this is not a free choice. The Israeli government must release the asylum seekers from custody and examine who is due international protection according to international standards. Israel must begin respecting the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, and start by releasing them from detention facilities where they were placed without trial.”
The UNHCR determined in 2011 that avoiding military service is the main reason for political persecution in Eritrea and could lead to imprisonment in inhuman conditions, torture and even executions. The UN added that the Eritrean authorities may view evading military service as a dissenting view and treat the evader or deserter as a traitor. A U.S. State Department study, published in April, examined the severe human rights violations in Eritrea, noting, “Illegal executions continued as well as torture and difficult imprisonment conditions which often lead to death.”
Four months ago Weinstein banned the use of a “voluntary” return protocol for detained asylum seekers, in the wake of a Haaretz report on the arrest of an Eritrean citizen who signed a ‘voluntary‘ repatriation document while in Israeli prison and was flown through Uganda to Egypt, where he was arrested. Two months ago the state admitted than since the June 2012 anti-infiltration law was passed, some 2,104 Sudanese citizens left Israel, 534 of them straight from detention facilities. The state also reported that only three Eritrean citizens left Israel for other destinations – not Eritrea – in the past year.