Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large
African immigrants wait to see if they will be picked up as workers, in Levinsky Park in Tel Aviv.
African immigrants wait to see if they will be picked up as workers, in Levinsky Park in Tel Aviv.

Israel criticised for turning back African asylum seekers

The country's policy of stopping refugees at its border could be putting lives at risk, say critics.

TEL AVIV // Israel's practice of turning away African asylum-seekers who slip across the border from Egypt has prompted condemnation that it may be violating international law and spurred fears that the act endangers the migrants' lives.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) last week claimed that Israel's forcible return of the asylum-seekers to Egypt immediately after they make the perilous trek across the porous desert border was possibly illegal, in a statement described by rights activists as the body's sharpest criticism yet of the procedure. Such censure is viewed by the activists as a significant development that could advance a two-year-old petition to the Israeli Supreme Court demanding that Israel stop turning back migrants just hours after their infiltration from its 250-km frontier with Egypt - the controversial, so-called "hot return" policy that has been implemented since August 2007.

Activists have also lambasted Israel for carrying out that policy through soldiers posted at the border who, with little or no training, are ordered to conduct brief interviews with the infiltrators to determine whether they qualify for asylum. Anat Ben-Dor, head of a legal aid clinic at Tel Aviv University, which represents the migrants, said: "This practice is a disgrace for the state of Israel and a stain on its asylum procedures. It cannot be that human beings are expelled at the border after a soldier who has not been trained for this task interviews them for 10 minutes to decide whether they are refugees."

There are about 20,000 Muslim and Christian asylum-seekers in Israel, with three quarters of them from Eritrea and Sudan and most of the rest from the Ivory Coast, according to Israeli rights groups. Until today, Israel has granted refugee status to only about 170 of them, according to official figures, many of whom have immigrated to Canada. In the first nine months of this year, Israel said it has returned to Egypt 217 asylum seekers who were caught within a day of their arrival, although activists claim the actual numbers are higher.

The Israeli government considers most of the newcomers as economic migrants and fears that if it embraces them, thousands would follow. The government is also worried about further reducing the country's Jewish majority, especially in the face of a growing Palestinian population both within its borders and in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. But critics of its policy say more sympathy should be expected from a country established six decades ago by refugees who had escaped the historic persecution of Jews that culminated in the Holocaust. After all, Israel was also one of the first signatories to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which forbids expelling or returning a refugee or asylum-seeker to a country where his or her life or freedom could be threatened.

Israel began cracking down on the infiltrators in 2007, turning many of them back to Egypt, where they often face imprisonment and torture and are frequently deported to their countries of origin, where activists claim their lives are at risk. Ms Ben-Dor said she had been contacted by Israeli soldiers concerned about the clampdown and Israel's violations of even its own return policies. One reservist claimed that his battalion was ordered one night last June to force some 26 newcomers who had crossed the border a few days earlier back to the Egyptian side and fire light flares, shoot in the air to yell in a bid to stage an infiltration that had just been discovered. The reservist said his commander had told him that Egyptian border guards were more likely to take back the migrants if it appeared they had just crossed.

While Egypt for years has tolerated tens of thousands of Africans on its territory, its treatment of them has soured amid pressure from Israel to halt their rising influx into its territory. Since then, Egypt's deportations of asylum-seekers were its largest in decades and its police have also shot dead dozens of them at the Israeli border. At least 17 migrants have been killed since May, most recently on Tuesday, when an infiltrator was shot after he ignored orders to stop.

According to the statement by the UNHCR, asylum-seekers returned to Egypt are often imprisoned for as long as one year, have to pay fines and face a "strong likelihood" of being deported to a country where they may be persecuted. Furthermore, since early 2008, they have increasingly been blocked from access to the UN body's procedures for determining refugee status. It said in the statement: "In light of the present conditions in Egypt, and in the absence of any formal agreement between Egypt and Israel presenting sufficient guarantees for the safety and protection of returned asylum seekers - UNHCR considers that so-called 'hot returns' may be inconsistent with Israel's commitments under international refugee and human rights law."

Foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Back to the top

More articles


Editor's Picks

 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani greets supporters after his arrival in Zahedan, the regional capital of Sistan and Baluchestan province on Tuesday, April 15, 2014. During Mr Rouhani's two-day visit, he will tour several other cities and hold meetings with local scholars and entrepreneurs. Maryam Rahmanian for The National

On the road with Hassan Rouhani

Iran's president is touring some of Iran's most underdeveloped provinces. Foreign correspondent Yeganeh Salehi is traveling with him.

 The Doha-based Youssef Al Qaradawi speaks to the crowd as he leads Friday prayers in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt in February, 2011. The outspoken pro-Muslim Brotherhood imam has been critical of the UAE’s policies toward Islamist groups, adding to friction between Qatar and other GCC states. Khalil Hamra / AP Photo

Brotherhood imam skips Doha sermon, but more needed for GCC to reconcile

That Youssef Al Qaradawi did not speak raises hopes that the spat involving Qatar and the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain might be slowly moving towards a resolution.

 Twitter photo of  Abdel Fattah El Sisi on the campaign trail on March 30. Photo courtesy-Twitter/@SisiCampaign

El Sisi rides a bicycle, kicks off social media storm

The photos and video created a huge buzz across social media networks, possibly a marker of a new era for Egypt.

 An Afghan election commission worker carries a ballot box at a vote counting centre in Jalalabad on April 6. A roadside bomb hit a truck carrying full ballot boxes in northern Afghanistan, killing three people a day after the country voted for a successor to President Hamid Karzai. Eight boxes of votes were destroyed in the blast, which came as the three leading candidates voiced concerns about possible fraud. Noorullah Shirzada / AFP Photo

Two pressing questions for Afghanistan’s future president

Once in office, the next Afghan president must move fast to address important questions that will decide the immediate future of the country.

 Friday is UN Mine Awareness Day and Omer Hassan, who does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan, is doing all he can to teach people about the dangers posed by landmines. Louise Redvers for The National

A landmine nearly ended Omer’s life but he now works to end the threat of mines in Iraq

Omer Hassan does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan and only has to show people his mangled leg to underscore the danger of mines. With the world marking UN Mine Awareness Day on Friday, his work is as important as ever as Iraq is one of the most mine-affected countries in the world.

 Supporters of Turkey's ruling AKP cheer as they follow the election's results in front of the party's headquarters in Ankara on March 30. Adem Altan/ AFP Photo

Erdogan critic fears retaliation if he returns to Turkey

Emre Uslu is a staunch critic of Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Now, with a mass crackdown on opposition expected, he is unsure when he can return home.

Events

To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National