The Israeli authorities have employed an “unlawful coercion policy” to force almost 7,000 African asylum seekers to leave Israel, putting them at risk of imprisonment and torture upon returning to their home countries, a new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report has alleged.
The report, released on Tuesday, found at least 6,400 Sudanese asylum seekers, and another 367 Eritreans, left Israel for their home countries by the end of June. Home to approximately 50,000 African aslyum seekers, Israel recognised only two Eritreans and one Sudanese as refugees in that same time.
“We’ve documented how some Sudanese are detained, interrogated, tortured, put in solitary confinement and charged with treason for visiting Israel, while Eritreans face detention and torture by officials who consider evasion of indefinite national military service as an act of treason,” Gerry Simpson, a senior refugee researcher with HRW, told Al Jazeera.
The report pointed to Israel’s indefinite detention of asylum seekers as the primary means of coercion. HRW also documented how nine Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers were deported to third countries – Rwanda, Uganda and Ethiopia – though these countries have not publicly confirmed taking them in.
Speaking to HRW, a 32-year-old man from Darfur was sent from Israel to the Sudanese capital Khartoum in February 2014. “I knew that [Israel] would detain me for an unlimited amount of time and that is a form of mental and physical imprisonment,” he said, explaining his reason for leaving.
The man said he was held for eight weeks at Kober prison, including 20 days in solitary confinement, and charged with treason for having been in Israel, a crime under Sudanese law. The authorities released him after his family sold its land to pay $40,000 bail, he said. “They confiscated my passport and banned me from travelling for five years.”
Israel has argued that African migrants leave the country voluntarily, and sign forms to that effect. It maintains that it has not broken its commitments as a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which centres on the principle of non-refoulement, which protects refugees from returning to a country where they could face “serious threats to his or her life or freedom”.
“The fact that somebody is looking for a better life, I can understand it. Israel is definitely a better life than many other places in the world, but that doesn’t entitle a person to refugee status,” Paul Hirschson, deputy spokesman for the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs, told Al Jazeera in January. “Sending a person back home is zero violation of the convention on refugees.”
But human rights groups and UN officials have said that returning people under the threat of indefinite detention does not demonstrate freewill. “Where Eritreans or Sudanese are not provided with an adequate protective status and instead are ordered to reside at Holot ‘residency facility’ for an unspecified period of time, the nature of voluntariness is open to doubt,” Walpurga Englbrecht, representative to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Tel Aviv, told Al Jazeera via e-mail.
“Israel is obliged not to return a person to her/his country of origin if her/his life or freedom would be at risk. The same applies to transfer to third countries if there is the danger that the person would be refouled to her/his country of origin from there,” Englbrecht said.
Under the country’s Prevention of Infiltration Law, Israel can detain asylum seekers without charge or trial, and hold them in what the government calls an “open resident centre” for unspecified periods of time. According to human rights groups, this facility – the Holot centre in Israel’s southern Negev desert – is a detention centre in all but name, and could “result in indefinite detention, with no release grounds”.
Mutasim Ali is one of the African asylum seekers currently held at Holot, which can hold up to 3,300 people.
A leader of the Sudanese community in Israel and director of the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC), Ali was transferred to Holot a few months after tens of thousands of African asylum seekers marched across Israel demanding greater rights and an end to indefinite detention.
“They’re making peoples lives more difficult for people [to get them to leave Israel]. When somebody shows the desire to leave the country, [the authorities] are very helpful and try to get them to leave as quickly as possible,” Ali told Al Jazeera.
Asylum seekers kept at Holot must check-in three times per day. They are banned from working outside the facility, and are locked in at night. At the end of June, at least 1,000 African asylum seekers left the Holot centre and marched to the Israeli border with Egypt. They set up a protest camp and demanded an end to their detention, but were quickly evicted by Israeli police and returned to the prison.
Ali said that the eviction of the protest camp broke many peoples’ morales, and that since then, handfuls of asylum seekers have left Holot every day to return to their home or third countries. “It’s not something that the government should be proud of. They are making the lives miserable for people. It’s inhumane and people are leaving in pain,” he said.
Israel has never formulated a clear policy to determine refugee status, and doesn’t officially process refugee claims. Instead, it grants most asylum seekers “temporary group protection”, also known as “deferred detention”, which allows them to remain in the country, but doesn’t provide them with a work permit, healthcare, or other social services.
The government has defended its policies by stating that it cannot absorb the asylum seekers while also preserving the state’s Jewish character; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in July that repatriating African asylum seekers is a goal that “is essential for the welfare of Israel’s citizens and for its future as a Jewish and democratic state”.
Since its creation in 1948, Israel has recognised less than 200 asylum seekers as refugees, according to human rights groups.
“Israeli and international law obliges Israel to end its coercion policy, especially through indefinite detention, which exposes returning Eritreans and Sudanese to a risk of persecution or other serious harm back home,” said HRW’s Simpson.
“Israel should also guarantee them access to fair and efficient asylum procedures and officially recognise their right to work so they can look after themselves and live dignified lives until it is safe for them to return home.” Al Jazeera