Israeli authorities have unlawfully coerced almost 7,000 Eritrean and Sudanese nationals into returning to their home countries where they risk serious abuse, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Some returning Sudanese have faced torture, arbitrary detention, and treason charges in Sudan for setting foot in Israel, while returning Eritreans also face a serious risk of abuse.
The 83-page report, “‘Make Their Lives Miserable:’ Israel’s Coercion of Eritrean and Sudanese Asylum Seekers to Leave Israel,” documents how Israel’s convoluted legal rules thwart Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers’ attempts to secure protection under Israeli and international law. Israeli authorities have labelled Eritreans and Sudanese a “threat”, branded them “infiltrators,” denied them access to fair and efficient asylum procedures, and used the resulting insecure legal status as a pretext to unlawfully detain or threaten to detain them indefinitely, coercing thousands into leaving.
“Destroying people’s hope of finding protection by forcing them into a corner and then claiming they are voluntarily leaving Israel is transparently abusive,” said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel are left with the choice of living in fear of spending the rest of their days locked up in desert detention centers or of risking detention and abuse back home.”
In 2006, Eritreans and Sudanese began arriving in Israel through Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in large numbers, fleeing widespread human rights abuses in their countries. By the time Israel all but sealed off its border with Egypt in December 2012, about 37,000 Eritreans and 14,000 Sudanese had entered the country.
Over the past eight years, the Israeli authorities have applied various coercive measures to “make their lives miserable” and “encourage the illegals to leave,” in the words of former Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai and current Israeli Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, respectively. These include indefinite detention, obstacles to accessing Israel’s asylum system, the rejection of 99.9 percent of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum claims, ambiguous policies on being allowed to work, and severely restricted access to healthcare.
Since June 2012, the Israeli authorities have indefinitely detained thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese for entering Israel irregularly, that is, without entering through an official border crossing. After the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in September 2013 that such detention was unlawful, the Israeli authorities responded by renaming their detention policy and began requiring Eritreans and Sudanese to live in the Holot “Residency Center” in Israel’s remote Negev desert in conditions which amount to detention despite the change in name.
In January 2014, Human Rights Watch spoke with one of the first people to be detained in the Holot facility, a 21-year-old Eritrean who said, “Life here in Holot is the same as in [Israel’s] Saharonim [detention center], where I was detained for 14 months before. Lots of people here have mental problems because they were also detained for so long. I am also afraid of getting those problems. I have been in prison for so long.”
As of late August 2014, just under 2,000 Eritreans and Sudanese – including over 1,000 who have claimed asylum – were detained in the Holot facility, while just under 1,000 were detained in the Saharonim detention center. The remaining 41,000 Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel’s cities live under threat of being ordered to report to Holot.
Detaining people in Holot breaches the prohibition under international law on arbitrary detention because people are confined to a specific location where they cannot carry out their normal occupational and social activities. Detainees are held there for no lawful purpose and indefinitely under a blanket immigration detention policy. The Israeli authorities fail to justify, on an individual basis, each decision to detain someone and there is no effective way to challenge the decision.
The only way for detainees to secure their release is to be recognized as a refugee. Yet, Israeli authorities have also systematically denied Eritreans and Sudanese access to fair and efficient asylum procedures. Until late 2012, the authorities refused to register their asylum claims at all, saying they did not need refugee status because Israel was tolerating their presence under a group protection policy that it extends to certain nationalities.
In February 2013, Israel allowed Eritreans and Sudanese to lodge asylum claims in significant numbers. However, as of March 2014, the authorities had only reviewed just over 450 detainees’ claims, while Israeli refugee lawyers said there was no evidence that the authorities had reviewed a single claim by Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers living in Israeli towns and cities. The rejection rate has been almost 100 percent.
The cumulative impact of these policies is that Eritreans and Sudanese are left with no choice but lifelong detention in Israel or returning to a country where they risk persecution or other serious harm.
Seven Sudanese who returned to Sudan told Human Rights Watch they left Israel because they feared indefinite detention there and said they were detained and interrogated in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. Three were held for long periods during which one was tortured, a second was put in solitary confinement, and a third was charged with treason.
Under Sudanese law, anyone who has visited Israel faces up to 10 years in prison in Sudan. Sudanese nationals in Israel therefore have what is known as a sur place refugee claim in which the well-founded fear of being persecuted arises as a consequence of events that happened, or activities the asylum seeker engaged in, after they left their country of origin.
The fate of Eritreans returning from Israel is unknown, although Human Rights Watch has documented how the Eritrean authorities abuse some Eritreans returning from other countries.
Because of credible persecution fears relating to punishment for evading indefinite military service in Eritrea and other human rights abuses there, 83 percent of Eritrean asylum seekers worldwide were granted some form of protection in 2013, according to the UN refugee agency, in stark contrast to the 0.1 percent given such status in Israel.
Eritrean and Sudanese nationals who agree to return from Israel to their own countries under threat of indefinite detention should be considered victims of refoulement, Human Rights Watch said. Refoulement, under international law, is the forcible return “in any manner whatsoever” of a refugee or asylum seeker to a risk of persecution, or of anyone to likely torture or inhuman and degrading treatment.
“Israeli officials say they want to make the lives of ‘infiltrators’ so miserable that they leave Israel, and then claim people are returning home of their own free will,” Simpson said. “International law is clear that when Israel threatens Eritreans and Sudanese with lifelong detention, they aren’t freely deciding to leave Israel and risk harm back home.”
Since 2008, Israeli authorities have given Eritreans and Sudanese “conditional release” permits that must be renewed every few months. Failure to renew on time risks arrest, detention, and job loss since the authorities threaten to fine anyone who employs workers without permits. In late 2013, the authorities severely restricted access to permit renewal procedures, leading to chaos as Eritreans and Sudanese desperately tried to renew their permits. Community leaders said the resulting stress and lack of resources to survive have contributed to many decisions by Sudanese and Eritreans to leave Israel.
“Make Their Lives Miserable” also examines the Israeli authorities’ ambiguous and unclear work-authorization policy that has made it almost impossible for many Eritrean and Sudanese to find and retain employment, leaving many in permanent fear of destitution. Combined with obstacles to accessing healthcare, this has also added to the pressure to leave Israel.
Israel should recognize all Sudanese nationals in the country as refugees and assess Eritrean asylum claims in line with UNHCR’s guidelines, Human Rights Watch said.
Because fairly reviewing tens of thousands of asylum claims in line with international refugee law standards would take years, Israeli authorities should also grant Eritreans and Sudanese a secure temporary protection status for a renewable 12-month period based on widespread human rights abuses in their home countries. The status could be lifted once conditions have sufficiently improved to allow for return in safety and dignity, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Israeli authorities appear hell-bent on spending vast amounts of resources to unlawfully detain thousands and to go through the motions of reviewing asylum claims only to reject them all,” Simpson said. “Instead, they should respect their obligations and protect these people while allowing them to work and live temporarily in Israel.”