July 26, 2013

Your government forces you into its army, whose conscripts spend years or decades on starvation wages in barracks and construction sites policed by corrupt and abusive superiors. You escape, creeping at night past border guards with shoot-to-kill orders. You reach a neglected refugee camp in a remote desert region of a neighboring country.

You are kidnapped and sold to traffickers in another country. They brutally torture you to extort thousands of dollars from your relatives, forced to hear your screams on a cell phone. You are released and evade more trigger-happy border guards to cross into another country, where soldiers take you to prison. You ask for asylum but it takes months to register your claim. And then a prison official says, “Write here that you want to go home and sign, or this prison is your new home.”

You wake up.

But for the 1,400 Eritrean asylum seekers detained in Israel’s Negev desert who could tell this story, this is no dream. They are living the nightmare. Having fled Eritrea for Sudan’s refugee camps, most will have faced months of torture and abuse by traffickers in Sudan and Egypt’s Sinai region, and now face a grim “choice” between prolonged detention in Israel or return to Eritrea.  Israel calls it the “procedure for documenting the free will of infiltrators.”

On July 14, Israel reportedly transferred 14 Eritrean asylum seekers, who had signed on the dotted line, from the Saharonim detention center near the Egyptian border to Tel Aviv International airport. From there they flew via Istanbul to Eritrea, with the help of the Eritrean Ambassador to Israel.

Israel says they are now safely back in the hands of the Eritrean government. Since 2004, its appalling human rights record has driven hundreds of thousands of Eritreans to escape their country. Eritrea’s abuses – including life-long military service, torture, enforced disappearances and religious persecution, to list just a few – are such that four out of every five Eritrean asylum seekers worldwide are recognized as refugees or given other protected status.

But not Eritrean asylum seekers in Israel.

Since June 2012, Israel has automatically detained all but a few of the estimated 2,000 Eritrean and Sudanese nationals crossing its 240-kilometer border with Egypt. Israel’s repressive “Prevention of Infiltration” law, in violation of international law, deems anyone who irregularly enters Israel – that is, without a passport and visa – to be an “infiltrator.” The law was explicitly designed to authorize the prolonged, and in some cases indefinite, detention of Africans entering the country via Egypt.

In February 2013, Israel reluctantly started to register detainees’ asylum claims – the vast majority of the estimated 1,400 detained Eritreans have lodged claims. But Israel refused to release any of them out of detention. And in July, under new rules with the attorney general’s stamp of approval, the authorities started filming detained asylum seekers drafting and signing papers saying they were “freezing” their asylum claims and volunteering to go home.

No matter that international law says asylum seekers should be detained only in exceptional circumstances and never be forced or pressured to return to a country where they face a serious risk of persecution. And no matter that most of the 14 who flew back to Eritrea on July 14 told the U.N. refugee agency that they were going home because they would do anything to get out of prison.

So what happens now?

Aside from the 2,000 detainees whose resolve Israel is trying to break with threats of years in detention, 35,000 Eritreans and 15,000 Sudanese earlier “infiltrators” live in Tel Aviv and other cities. Over the past few years, senior Israeli officials have trumpeted plans to deport every single one of them.

Can they do that? New Israeli regulations allow the authorities to detain “infiltrators” suspected – not convicted – of offenses “endangering national security or the public peace,” or of any other criminal offense, such as stealing a mobile phone, and anyone who has already served a prison sentence for any criminal offense and who has been released.

Unless the international community acts on the tireless work of Israeli human rights groups reporting on these unlawful policies, Israeli officials will have their way with their plans to thwart tens of thousands of asylum claims and pressure Eritreans to return to persecution.

The U.N. refugee agency says that beyond those detained at the border, another 250 or more in Israeli cities, mostly Eritreans, have already been detained under the regulations, and officials say hundreds more will follow. No doubt all will be asked to sign on the dotted line.