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Israel Making Desperate People's Lives Truly Miserable

It is high time Israeli authorities guaranteed Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers access to fair asylum procedures.

Published in: Al Jazeera

They are "a cancer in our body", and "a threat to the social fabric of society … national security [and the] identity and existence [of the] Jewish and democratic state". As "infiltrators", they should be "encourage[d] … to leave" and "lock[ed] … up to make their lives miserable".

Is this an off-the-record rant of some junior Israeli official? Not quite. These are the words of Israeli Parliamentarian Miri Regev, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and of the current and former Israeli Interior Ministers Eli Yishai and Gideon Saar. And they are not talking about some threat posed by extremists sneaking into Israel to install a caliphate.

Instead, the target of these public diatribes - described by the UN refugee agency as "xenophobic statements made by … public officials who … stigmatise asylum seekers" - is about 51,000 Eritreans and Sudanese. These people fled widespread abuses in their home countries and sought protection in Israel before the Israeli authorities effectively sealed off the border with Egypt in late 2012.

Human rights concerns

The Israeli authorities know that they can't deport Eritreans and Sudanese to their home countries because of serious human rights concerns in both countries, not to mention that Sudan's relations with Israel are so bad that it considers people who flee there to be criminals.

Yet the authorities have done everything they can to make their lives so unbearable that they leave, despite great risk to their well-being. And it's working. Since January 2013 - six months after Israel introduced an unlawful policy of indefinitely detaining as many "infiltrators" as possible to coerce them into leaving - almost 7,000 people, mostly Sudanese, have buckled under the pressure and returned home.

Another 44,000 Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel's cities live in constant fear of receiving orders to report to a remote desert detention centre near the Egyptian border where, the authorities say, they will be confined until they also agree to leave the country.

Coercion policyIn a transparent attempt to circumvent a September 2013 Supreme Court order to the authorities to ditch their detention policy because it breached the country's Basic Law, the authorities have called the most recent detention centre in Holot a "Residency Center". "Residents" must sign in three times daily and be there by night, while the nearest town is 65km away. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Israeli refugee advocates and lawyers, the Supreme Court is about to rule on the constitutionality of that centre as well.

In January, I interviewed dozens of Eritreans and Sudanese who said that Israel's coercion policy was causing them enormous anxiety and that they might leave the country.

Birhane - not his real name - is a 21-year-old Eritrean detained in Holot. As with hundreds - possibly thousands - of Eritreans who passed through Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, traffickers there tortured him for ransom before he reached Israel.

"Life here in Holot is the same as in [Israel's] Saharonim [detention centre], where I was detained for 14 months before," Birhane said. "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."

But like thousands of other Eritreans facing lifelong arbitrary detention in breach of Israeli and international law, Birhane also fears returning to Eritrea, where the regime's abuses include severe punishment for evading life-long military service, torture, enforced disappearances and religious persecution. So bad are the abuses that four out of every five Eritrean asylum seekers worldwide last year were recognised as refugees, while by the end of June, Israel had only recognised two Eritreans as refugees.

Some form of protection

Israel has also rejected 100 percent of Sudanese asylum claims, though globally 67 percent of Sudanese asylum seekers are given some form of protection. Sudanese law says that anyone who has set foot in Israel faces up to 10 years in prison in Sudan. Sudanese in Israel have what's known as a sure place refugee claim, meaning Israel should recognise all Sudanese as refugees because they risk being persecuted for having been to Israel.

Sudanese returning from Israel have described to me at great length how security officials in Khartoum, Sudan's capital, detained and interrogated them. Three told me they were held for long periods - one was tortured, one put in solitary confinement, and a third charged with treason.

Israeli officials claim that Eritreans and Sudanese agreeing to leave Israel do so voluntarily. But anyone who agrees to return under threat of indefinite detention should be considered a victim of refoulement - 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 inhumane and degrading treatment - prohibited under international law.

It is high time Israeli authorities guaranteed Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers access to fair asylum procedures and gave them a secure legal status until it is safe for them to return home in dignity.

Gerry Simpson is a senior refugee researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch and author of the report, "'Make Their Lives Miserable:' Israel's Coercion of Eritrean and Sudanese Asylum Seekers to Leave Israel."

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