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Between a wall and a hard place: Examining Israel’s voluntary departure policy for African asylum seekers

“It’s not only about the 45,000 or 50,000 people that already are here in Israel, it’s about the potential. Because those people tell their friends and families back home – ‘Look, this a very nice place. Do come over’.” – Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nhashon, speaking to the BBC in February 2016.

In October 2015, Israel’s Bersheba District Court upheld a controversial governmental policy that results in the deportation of African asylum seekers to third countries within the continent. The ruling builds upon a progressively restrictive policy by the Israeli government to decisively rid the country of ‘infiltrators’ . Asylum seekers are given a choice between return to their country of origin, relocation to a third country, or detention. The return and relocation movements, termed as ‘voluntary’ by the Israeli government, have elicited widespread criticism from civil society organisations who have termed the policy coercive.

The most recent figures by the Israeli Ministry of Interior show that in July 2015 there were 45,091 asylum seekers and migrants in Israel, of which 73% were from Eritrea and 19% were from Sudan.

Israel’s policy regarding African asylum seekers and migrants.

The State of Israel has one of the most restrictive asylum regimes in the world, having approved less than 1% of asylum applications since it signed the UN Refugee Convention in 1954. Statistics from the Population, Immigration and Borders Agency (PIBA) show that between July 2009 and 2015 only 0.16% of Eritreans (4 of 2,408 applications) applying for asylum were granted refugee status. Sudanese nationals received no positive determinations (0 of 3,165 applications) in the same period.

These figures are in stark contrast to recognition rates around the world for these nationalities. Recognition rates for first-instance applications in the EU for the first quarter of 2015 were 90% and 53% for Eritreans and Sudanese respectively. Israeli public opinion suggests that the government’s position is part of a wider problem in Israel’s treatment of foreigners, and of Africans in particular.

Israel’s politicians have used strong rhetoric to display their unwelcoming attitude towards migrants and asylum seekers. Prime Minister Netanyahu is on record in 2012 as stating that migrants posed “a threat to the social fabric of society, our national security, our national identity…and…our existence as a Jewish and democratic state” . This positing of asylum seekers and migrants as “others”, “illegal” and “threatening” gave credence to the construction of a border wall on the boundary between Israel and Egypt and plans to erect a similar wall on the country’s border with Jordan.

Detention of ‘infiltrators’

‘Infiltrators’ who have not applied for asylum, those who have their applications pending, and those whose applications have been rejected are all subject to some form of detention.

In March 2015, the government announced a new policy whereby ‘infiltrators’ who had not formally applied for asylum would be given 30 days to leave to an undisclosed third state. The policy, termed “Rwanda or Saharonim” by human rights organisation Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, effectively gave migrants a choice: to leave voluntarily or face internment at the Saharonim detention centre.

In August 2015, Israel’s High Court of Justice approved the latest version of the Prevention of Infiltration Law that allows for the detention of asylum seekers at the Holot detention facility located in the Negev desert for a period of up to one year, with a possible 6 month extension. The ruling was a positive outcome for asylum seekers in the country, who had previously been subjected to a possible detention of up to 20 months before release. Most recently, the government limited this detention strictly to 12 months without the option for possible extension. Some 1,200 asylum seekers were released following the August judgement, however, the discharge was made conditional on barring those freed from accessing Tel Aviv or Eliat. This elicited strong criticism which, in absence of the government demonstrating a necessity to protect national security, public health or morals, or the rights and freedoms of others, may be in contravention of international human rights law.

Less than Voluntary Returns

According to statistics made public by Israel’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority, 8,355 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers returned from Israel between January 2013 and July 2015. Despite well-documented international concern on the human rights conditions in their home countries 5,667 asylum seekers (1,059 Eritreans and 4,608 Sudanese) were sent back to Eritrea and Sudan in that period. A further 2,688 (1,980 Eritreans and 708 Sudanese) were sent back to other “safe” third countries (not formally acknowledged but widely understood to be Uganda and Rwanda) on the continent.

Multiple reports by civil society organisations have condemned the return process, run by the Ministry of Interior’s Voluntary Return Unit, alleging that the procedure is far from voluntary, and potentially in contravention to the international asylum regime. The reports cite imprisonment, withholding of legal status, withholding work permits, and requirements to frequently renew “Conditional Release” permits as reasons pressurising migrants and asylum seekers to leave Israel. To encourage more to return, the government also promises to provide each departing asylum seeker/migrant with USD 3,500 in cash, paid in the departure lounge of the airport.

A 2014 report, No Safe Haven, by Israeli NGO Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, highlights the highly restrictive and hostile asylum policy applicable to Eritrean and Sudanese nationals. According to the report, until 2013 Eritrean and Sudanese nationals were prevented from filing applications for asylum. Reportedly these groups only received an identification interview and were not presented with an opportunity to give a comprehensive account of their claims, effectively keeping them out of the asylum system. Moreover, language surrounding the policy of their treatment also changed. Eritreans and Sudanese who were initially entitled to ‘temporary group protection’, were now subject to a ‘temporary non-removal policy’, which the report contends, was borne of a concern that continuing to use the term ‘temporary protection’ might justify the demands for certain rights by these groups.

Another report, Make Their Lives Miserable, released by Human Rights Watch gives a detailed documentation of the coercion of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers to leave Israel, through detention.

In I Was Left with Nothing International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) alleges that despite assurances made by the Israeli government on the protection of asylum seekers in third countries, asylum seekers were unable to secure any form of legal status to protect their presence in these countries. They were not given the opportunity to apply for asylum, were not provided with valid legal documents and were either encouraged to leave the country, operate below the radar, or hide the fact that they had come from Israel. Some interviewees even indicated that they were arrested and had to pay thousands of US Dollars in order to be released.

For Sudanese asylum seekers returning to Sudan, interviews in the report, Where there is No Free Will by the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, revealed a future of harassment, arbitrary detention, and torture or other ill treatment for returning Sudanese nationals who were suspected of engaging in political activism in Israel.

Between a wall and a hard place

Not much is known about the voluntary return procedure run by the Israeli Voluntary Return Unit. Available information points to a less than voluntary process, and raises concerns about possible breaches of the principle on non-refoulement in large numbers. For many, the only reason behind the decision to relocate to a third country was because other alternatives – detention or to return to their countries of origin – were intolerable.

The lack of monitoring process further compounds the situation where those departing face real danger on returning to their countries of origin, and when departing for third countries, have no information and face arrest and difficulties in accessing asylum on arriving. According to IRRI’s report, those arriving are received by persons acting under an unclear authority, who could not be readily associated with official government structures.

Further, people sent from Israel to Uganda were not given any explanation about their status in the country at any point. Experiences of those arriving were therefore highly inconsistent; while one interviewee was able to apply and secure asylum, another was told that there was no agreement between Israel and Uganda. Others who had submitted asylum claims were later told to revoke them or leave the country. Contrary to promises made by Israeli officials of work permits and the ability to start businesses in their destination countries, they had been left without status and unable to find work to support themselves.

With these prospects, many asylum seekers interviewed by IRRI in Rwanda and Uganda indicated an intention to move from those countries to through South Sudan, Sudan and Libya, with the ultimate aim of crossing the Mediterranean into Europe, often resorting to smuggling networks to make the moves.

Thus far, the government’s policy seems to be working. RMMS’ report Going West showed how the government’s stringent immigration measures put in place in 2012 and finalised in 2013 reduced from the tens of thousands to virtually zero. Despite this shrinking space, there is still an appetite among African migrants and asylum seekers to travel to Israel. In November 2015, some 200 Eritrean and Sudanese nationals were arrested after crossing into Israel over the country’s border fence with Egypt.

In November 2015, Israeli NGOs lodged an appeal at the Supreme Court in a bid to strike down a ruling by the Beersheba District Court earlier in the same month that approved of the State’s policy to imprison persons denied refugee status indefinitely if they refuse relocation to an unnamed third country. The outcome of this appeal remains to be seen, but if the government has its way, both physical barriers (through the construction of border fences) and legal barriers (through detention and difficult conditions) are likely to continue. The aim: to make Israel an undesirable destination for asylum seekers and migrants, either by deterrence or frustration.


[1]Infiltrator a term that historically carries highly negative meaning and is associated with threats to national security. Section 1 of the 1951 Law for the Prevention of Infiltration defines an ‘infiltrator’ as ‘any person who knowingly and unlawfully entered Israel’ and is either ‘a national or citizen of Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Trans-Jordan, Iraq or the Yemen’, or ‘a resident or visitor in one of those countries…’. Section 10 of the same law prescribes a ‘presumption of infiltration’ against those that are found to have entered the country without permission. Therefore, all Eritrean and Sudanese nationals entering Israel without permission through Israel’s border with Egypt, where they were ‘visitors’ are presumed to be ‘infiltrators’.

[2]Israel is a signatory to both the UN 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol.

[3]See further: Hotline for Migrant Workers, Cancer in our Body.
[4]Rwanda’s Minister of Foreign Affairs announced in February 2016 that Rwanda has been in negotiations with Israel over the terms of its voluntary departure program for African asylum seekers and migrants. “We were approached by Israel on the resettlement of some refugees, so were a number of other countries, not just Rwanda. This happened about two or one and a half years ago…We haven’t been able to finalise [the deal]…[we] have been discussing the resettlement package in terms of where the refugees should settle in Rwanda, what kind of flexibility they would have and the medium-to-long-term status,” he is reported as saying.

Note: This article originally appeared on the RMMS Horn of Africa website.