Why is the state trying to jail married asylum seekers?

It seems the authorities did everything they could to separate a married Eritrean couple who fled their home country and sought refuge in Israel.

By Ofer Attar

Meet Awat and Ksenet, asylum seekers from Eritrea who also happen to be a married couple. The state is currently trying to separate them and send Awat to jail.

After his mother passed away from an illness and his father was killed in the Eritrean-Ethiopian War, Awat, at the age of 16, became an orphan responsible for raising his four younger siblings. He was a gifted soccer player, and as a teenager he played in a soccer league in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. While he was a student, his skills caught the eye of the coach of Eritrea’s national soccer team who asked Awat to come join them. He refused, and instead was forcibly recruited into the Eritrean Army, where he become a laborer in slave-like conditions — doing work unrelated to the army — and with no release date in sight. Meanwhile, his brothers, all of them minors, were left alone without any supervision.

In 2009 Awat managed to escape to Sudan. Fearing that he would be deported back to Eritrea, he left for the closest democratic country he knew, Israel, hoping that he would be safe there.

Awat and Ksenet.
Awat and Ksenet.

Ksenet was born in southern Eritrea. As a girl, she took care of her dying father, which caused her grades at school to drop. When her father finally passed away, Ksenet’s grades were so low that she wasn’t allowed to graduate. As a result the army wanted to recruit her, but she refused. When the police came after her, Ksenet feared for her life and the torture awaiting her due to her perceived “opposition” to the state. So she decided to run away to Israel.

Both Awat and Ksenet left behind family, many of whom they have lost touch with, are worried for, and miss greatly. The two met two years ago through mutual friends. They fell in love, moved in together, and a few months ago were married in a church in Jerusalem.

Then came Awat’s jail summons.

Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers living in Israel are required to renew their visas every two months. As part of the recent amendments to the anti-infiltration law, the state established and maintains Holot, an open detention facility. When asylum seekers come to the Interior Ministry to renew their visas, they often receive a summons for a hearing to decide whether they will be sent to Holot. There is almost unprecedented discretion given to ministry officials, giving them the right to decide the fate of an asylum seeker by jailing them for up to 12 months. According to testimonies given to the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, these hearings are often “incredibly aggressive and humiliating.”

Forbidden from yawning

African asylum seekers jailed in the Holot detention center protest behind the prison's fence, February 17, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)
African asylum seekers jailed in the Holot detention center protest behind the prison’s fence, February 17, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Last October when Awat came to the Interior Ministry to renew his visa — as he had done every two months — he received a summons for a hearing to decide whether to transfer him to Holot. Since married asylum seekers are exempted, Awat and Ksenet protested the summons; Ksenet even came to the ministry with all the necessary documentation to prove that they were married and living together. Couples are always interviewed separately, with the clerk comparing their answers at the end. If their answers do not match up, they fail the interview and the man has to report to Holot, tearing the family apart.

From start to finish, the interview of Ksenet and Awat is an example of the twisted discretion and legal authority given to immigration inspectors.

Ksenet explained:

I went into a room for the interview, where I saw there was another interview taking place right next to me. My interview was done entirely in Hebrew without a translator. I felt pressured by the interview and began to bite my nails, the inspector slammed his fist on the table and shouted at me to stop. All the other people in the room, besides me, were men. The inspector asked me things that made me feel uncomfortable, like what I wear to bed. When I answered, ‘pajamas,’ he laughed and asked me to elaborate. I was scared and humiliated. At the end of my interview and before the start of Awat’s interview, the immigration inspector told me to leave the office and asked the guard to accompany me.

“As soon as my interview began, the inspector informed me that he was going to issue me a summons to Holot, before he even heard what I have to say,” said Awat. “When I asked to have an interpreter in the room, the inspector shouted “You’re starting to annoy me!” in response. When I yawned, the clerk banged his fist on the table and shouted at me to stop. I wanted to show him the wedding photos of me and Ksenet to prove that we are married, but he told me he didn’t want to see my photos.”

At the end of the hearing, the inspector decided to send Awat to Holot for the maximum of 12 months. Unfortunately this is typical for these kinds of situations, and the couple left without a copy of the minutes from their hearing, which they are entitled to. Without the minutes from their meeting, the couple’s legal right to take steps against the decision is compromised.

Upon Awat’s arrival at the Hotline, we sent a request to the Interior Ministry to cancel his summons to Holot and to send us copy of the hearing transcript. The ministry did not answer the repeated calls, and because of the approaching date of Awat’s summons, we were forced to file an appeal to the Administrative Tribunal. In mid-November, the Tribunal, under the circumstances, issued renewed residence permits for Awat and Ksenet and froze Awat’s summons to Holot until a further ruling.

African refugees gathering out the Ministry of Interior offices in Tel Aviv on December 31, 2013 asking to renew their visas. Panic has spread among the refugees community in Israel as immigration authorities have started to deny visa renewals for, leaving them exposed to arrests and imprisonment under the Infiltrators Law. A big wave of arrests and forced detention was executed throughout the week. (Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)
African refugees gathering out the Ministry of Interior offices in Tel Aviv on December 31, 2013 asking to renew their visas. (photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

The questions at hand: What constitutes a family? Who is considered a couple? Is the couple telling the truth? And what are the legal tools to determine their sincerity? All of these are indeed serious questions; still, I think we can find appropriate and effective ways to deal with them. It is possible to conduct an interview that grants interviewees their privacy and under conditions that demonstrate respect. One can allow respondents the ability to express themselves freely in their native language, ask them they how met, where they got married, and examine the documents and photos from their wedding. It is also possible to conduct interviews that do not border on sexual harassment or degrade and debase individuals in the process. Lastly, it is not difficult to conduct an interview that does not deny the fundamental rights of the respondents.

We’re talking about human rights, the stakes are high. These rights should be protected by every official, authority, and judicial body.

After hearing their story and collecting their testimonies, Ksenet started crying out of fear that her husband will be taken from her and sent to the desert to be imprisoned in Holot. It was not possible not to be overwhelmed with emotion when Awat put his hand on her back and said: “Do not worry.”

The Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration offered the following response:

The Authority makes sure to publish its most updated criteria for summonses to Holot every month. Summons for a husband or partner is not included in the criteria and is defined as an exception who is not summoned to Holot. However, due to the fact that this is public knowledge, anyone who declares that he has a family or is married is summoned to a hearing before we have come to a decision on his case. The relevant documents on the couple’s partnership are examined during the hearing. Those who are found to be married are not summoned to Holot, while cases of doubt or when it is concluded that the two are not, in fact, a couple, do not prevent a summons.

The Administration chose not to respond to the specific questions regarding Awat and Ksenet’s treatment.

Ofer Attar is a case worker at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants. You can read the Hotline’s new report on asylum seekers and bureaucracy here. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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