x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Israel 'unlikely to stop deporting' Sudanese and Eritrean refugees

Activists say the government is threatening asylum-seekers with jail, which they say is against international law. Vita Bekker reports from Tel Aviv

A Sudanese migrant is taken from his apartment to a detention camp before his expulsion by the Israeli immigration officers in Eilat last year. Menahem Kahana / AFP
A Sudanese migrant is taken from his apartment to a detention camp before his expulsion by the Israeli immigration officers in Eilat last year. Menahem Kahana / AFP

TEL AVIV // Israel is likely to continue deporting Sudanese and Eritrean asylum-seekers, despite an order by its attorney general to stop, refugee-advocacy groups warn.

Israel's hardline interior minister, Eli Yishai, said this week the country had in recent months repatriated more than 2,000 Sudanese migrants and deported "tens" of Eritrean asylum-seekers.

Mr Yishai's statement raised concern that the deportees' lives could be at risk in their home countries.

Sudan and Israel are enemies, and Sudanese found to have visited Israel face a jail sentence of at least 10 years, and possible torture or death, rights groups say. Sudanese law forbids citizens to live in Israel.

Eritreans sent home could meet a similar fate. Their country's one-party regime, denounced by UN officials for repression, considers asylum-seeking an act of treason.

Media this week reported Israel had threatened Sudanese and Eritreans detained in its jails with long sentences unless they agreed to leave, telling them they had no prospects for asylum.

"The government of Israel is becoming more creative in finding ways to get rid of asylum-seekers," said Yonatan Berman, an Israeli immigration lawyer.

"At the same time, it's also willing to take bigger risks concerning these people's safety."

Mr Berman said using threats of detention to pressure asylum-seekers to give up was against international law, and it was also illegal to detain asylum-seekers indefinitely.

One case that has received much publicity was that of an Eritrean asylum-seeker, 28, who last week agreed to leave Israel after authorities pledged to send him to Uganda, not Eritrea.

In Uganda he was told Israel had not organised his arrival there and he was deported to Egypt, where activists said he was being held in an airport detention cell.

While he is likely to avoid being sent to Eritrea because of the media coverage, other Eritreans may not be as lucky, activists said.

Publicity over his case on Monday prompted the Israeli attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, to order the state to stop sending Eritreans out of the country.

A day later, Mr Yishai pledged to shelve the practice for Sudanese and Eritrean inmates.

News of the deportations has again cast attention on Israel's controversial treatment of African asylum-seekers.

In recent months, right-wing government officials have increasingly blasted the presence of about 60,000 African asylum-seekers, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, who arrived in Israel by sneaking through its porous border with Egypt since 2006.

For many conservatives, the refugees threaten Israel's Jewish character, are a financial and social burden and are seeking work rather than refuge.

The country rarely grants asylum status and refuses to look at most asylum applications.

In June, the state introduced a law that some UN officials have criticised as unusually draconian, jailing all African arrivals for up to three years without charge.

There are now about 2,400 African asylum-seekers in Israeli prisons.

Refugee advocates say they were sceptical that immigration officials would heed the attorney-general's order.

"The interior ministry has frequently ignored court orders concerning refugees, so it's likely they'll ignore this one as well," said Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator for the Israeli refugee advocacy group Hotline for Migrant Workers.

Ms Rozen said there had been many examples of Israeli immigration authorities keeping African migrants in jail even after a court has ordered them freed.

Israel rejects claims that it had forced jailed Sudanese and Eritreans to leave by threatening them with long detentions, insisting they departed voluntarily.

William Tall, who represents the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel, said the agency was in talks with Israel on ceasing the deportations.

"Any returns from detention in the absence of access to asylum procedures are not voluntary. Should this occur, we'll take this up with the government," Mr Tall said.

Ms Rozen said the Sudanese were repatriated through a third country - which Israeli media have speculated is Egypt or Jordan - because Tel Aviv has no relations with Khartoum and cannot fly them back directly.

She added that in the case of Eritrean prisoners, Israel was pledging to send them to Uganda rather than Eritrea despite the fact that there appeared to be no coordination with Ugandan officials on the issue.

Specific details on the repatriated Sudanese have not been available, but there have been reports that some returnees are facing persecution.

Bashir Abker, 33, a Sudanese working in a bakery in central Israel, said that of about 12 acquaintances that had gone back to Sudan, several had their passports confiscated on arrival and were taken away in night-time raids on their homes by security authorities.

"One of them called me to say that no one from Israel should go back home," Mr Abker said.