Supported by: Physicians for Human Rights – Israel; Aid Organisation for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel; Workers Hotline; Hotline for Migrant Workers
On Sunday, 14 July 2013, fourteen Eritreans detained at the Saharonim Detention Center in Israel, “voluntarily returned” to Eritrea. Israeli authorities had put pressure on these asylum seekers by confronting them with the following two options: years of imprisonment or “voluntarily return.” Pressured, these refugees signed consenting papers to return, flying from Tel Aviv to Asmara via Istanbul. Israel plans to repatriate dozens of individuals using the same procedure over the coming weeks.
The undersigned Israeli human rights organizations believe that such ”voluntary deportations” do not constitute free and informed consent when the only alternative offered is prolonged detention in Israel. Deportations under such a procedure constitute a violation of the principle of non-refoulement under international law. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Israeli human rights groups have repeatedly stressed that agreements to return to Eritrea and Sudan in the face of an ultimatum of unlimited jail time cannot be considered voluntary.
One Saharonim prisoner, who chose to remain anonymous, stated that “every day they’re pressuring us to sign, and more and more people are signing. Many people have just lost hope.” Some of the group deported on Sunday told UNHCR, we would “do anything to get out of prison.”
What can you do to help?
Contact the Israeli authorities
In your contacts with the Israeli authorities, we encourage you to ask them for further information on the decision to use this procedure, to request them to immediately halt this practice and release these individuals from detention. The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) is deeply involved in organizing the deportation of asylum seekers and refugees; you may also wish to discuss this issue with your relevant contacts at the Ministries of Justice, Interior, Foreign Affairs, and Internal Security.
External monitoring of Israel’s detention facilities is an important tool to promote the respect of the rights of detained refugees and asylum seekers. While the Saharonim detention facility is often closed to outsiders, they do accept requests from foreign diplomats and so we encourage you to request a visit to the facility.Israel has ratified the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Optional Protocol as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Under these and additional international obligations, Israel is required to individually assess claims for international protection in a fair and transparent manner and provide asylum for those deserving of such status. Detention should only be used as a last resort; all individuals detained must undergo an individualized assessment justifying their detention and adhering to standards of necessity and proportionality. Asylum seekers detained under the Prevention of Infiltration Law do not have access to fair and transparent asylum proceedings and their detention is automatic and without trial. The government of Israel must release asylum seekers from prison and assess their claims for protection in accordance with international standards.
The Israeli Attorney General, Yehuda Weinstein, approved the use of the procedure at the end of June. In a meeting at Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Office on 14 July, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar and Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich affirmed their intention to focus on returning “infiltrators” still in Israel via the “voluntary returns” process.
In a public letter, an Eritrean prisoner held in Ward 3 of Saharonim prison said: “Many among us were tortured and raped in Sinai. When we reached this democratic state of Israel, we didn’t expect such harsh punishment in prison… We lost all hope and became frustrated by this situation so that we ask you to either provide us with a solution or send us to our country, no matter what will happen to us, even if we have to endure death penalty by the Eritrean regime.”
Similarly, Israeli immigration authorities continue to pressure Sudanese asylum seekers in prison to consent to deportation to Sudan via Jordan. Over the last year, over 500 Sudanese nationals detained under the Prevention of Infiltration Law and more than 1,500 additional non-detained Sudanese nationals were deported from Israel to Sudan via a third country under the “voluntary return” procedure.
Also Sudanese prisoners expressed their loss of hope: ‘I would rather die in my own country than be in prison forever in Israel.’
To protest prolonged and indefinite detention, more than 300 prisoners in Saharonim Detention Center went on hunger strike for up to 10 days last June. Some detainees needed to be transferred to hospitals due to their deteriorating health conditions.
We, the undersigned human rights organizations are gravely concerned about the lives and well-being of asylum seekers returned to Eritrea or Sudan. The Israeli government must begin respecting international obligations towards refugees and asylum seekers including releasing refugees from detention.
For additional information, please be in contact with:
Sara Robinson, Amnesty International Israel, firstname.lastname@example.org, 054-9430620
Sigal Rozen, Hotline for Migrant Workers, email@example.com, 054-8177845
Shahar Shoham, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, firstname.lastname@example.org, 054-9431847