The new ‘choice’ for asylum seekers: Deportation or prison

Israel finally plans to close its desert detention facility for African asylum seekers. Refugee advocates worry it could be the start of something even worse.

African migrants gather during a protest outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on January 26, 2017. African asylum seekers protest on Thursday near the Kneeset and the Supreme Court against the new "Rwanda or Saharonim" policy of the Israeli government. (Sebi Berens/Flash90)
African asylum seekers protest near the Knesset and the Supreme Court against the new “Rwanda or Saharonim” policy of the Israeli government. (Sebi Berens/Flash90)

During a midnight vote on Monday, the Knesset passed a bill that will enable the government to detain asylum seekers indefinitely or deport them to an unspecified country in Africa. The law passed by a margin of 71 to 41.

The consequences of the law will stem not only from what appears in the text of the bill itself, but also what doesn’t: there is nothing in the bill that mentions deportation. Instead, on paper, the law—which amends an existing law dealing with illegal immigration to Israel—extends existing provisions that allow the state to fine businesses that employ asylum seekers and that prohibit asylum seekers from taking money out of the country. The bill also sets geographic limits on where asylum seekers can live, a measure that previously applied only to asylum seekers who had been imprisoned in the Holot detention facility. Most significantly, the bill sunsets the legal mandate of the Holot facility, which is now expected to shut down in March of 2018.

The closure of Holot is planned to coincide with the implementation of agreements—the specific terms of which remain state secrets—between Israel and Rwanda and Uganda. According to recent announcements by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan, once Israel closes Holot, Israel will present asylum seekers with a stark choice: deportation to Rwanda or Uganda or indefinite detention in Israel. In a High Court of Justice hearing last Tuesday, the state notified the court that it will begin deportations in a matter of weeks.

The deportation announcement comes on the heels of another High Court ruling in August that struck down a previous plan to deport Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers. In that case, the court ruled that the government could not use the threat of indefinite detention to force the asylum seekers to leave, since the agreements stipulated that the asylum seekers had to leave voluntarily, explained Attorney Anat Ben Dor of Tel Aviv University’s Refugee Rights Clinic.

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The government claims that it has since changed the agreements with Rwanda, and that Rwanda is now willing to accept people deported against their will. As recently as November, however, Rwandan Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo spoke only of receiving asylum seekers who had agreed to leave Israel for Rwanda voluntarily.

The lack of transparency around the agreements between Israel and Rwanda and Uganda makes it difficult to ascertain the precise implications of the government’s stated plan to close Holot and either deport or imprison the asylum seekers. Furthermore, much will depend on whether the various parties consider a choice between indefinite detention and deportation to be a voluntary decision made of free will.

“We’re not sure how low the government and the Knesset will go,” said Sigal Rozen, of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants. “Each time I think it can’t get worse, it does.” What is known about the government’s plans comes from statements to the press, and those are not necessarily accurate, Rozen added.

African asylum seekers protest on Saturday against the "Deposit Law", following which Eritreans and Sudanese are required to deposit fifth percent of their salary. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
African asylum seekers protest on Saturday against the “Deposit Law”, requires which Eritreans and Sudanese to deposit fifth percent of their salary in government supervised accounts. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The deportation and imprisonment plan does not apply to all asylum seekers, but only to those whose asylum requests have not been approved. The problem, Ben Dor stressed, is that Israel has essentially refused to recognize Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers as refugees.

To date, Israel has granted asylum to only one Sudanese man and 10 Eritreans, all with very special circumstances, Rozen said. An estimated 27,000 Eritrean and 8,000 Sudanese asylum seekers live in Israel. Around the world, between 80 and 90 percent of Eritrean and 70 percent of Sudanese asylum seekers are recognized as refugees, according to the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel (ASSAF).

Israel’s lack of a clear asylum policy and its failure to make information available has also made it difficult for people to submit asylum requests. “People don’t know if they submitted [their asylum requests] or didn’t, and now there are long waits that make it impossible,” Ben Dor said. In practice, people eligible for refugee status have not received it. And while people can continue to submit asylum requests, under the government’s proposed plan, asylum seekers whose requests have been denied can now be detained indefinitely or deported.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees expressed serious concern following the announcement of Israel’s latest plan last month. As it has been articulated so far, the plan “absolutely violates” the 1951 Refugee Convention to which Israel is a signatory, Rozen said.

Recent reports paint a grim picture of what awaits asylum seekers who choose to return to leave Israel for Rwanda or return to their home countries: torture, rape, mass and arbitrary imprisonment, forced labor. They are often denied status and prohibited from working. When Ben Dor visited Uganda, she found asylum seekers held “in cells with 30 people, no light no water, no beds.” She added, “in Israel, you wouldn’t keep animals in conditions like these.”

In the human rights community, the feeling is that there is no choice but to oppose the government’s plan. “We have an obligation and the desire to fight to make our country one that provides shelter to refugees,” Ben Dor said.

“I, personally, refuse to believe that the State of Israel will put victims of genocide and people who fled bloody dictatorships on a plane against their will to a country that is not capable of receiving them,” Rozen stressed. “And we’ll do everything we can to prevent this from happening.”