Wednesday, 13 March 2013

[headlines] Israel: Detained asylum seekers pressured to leave

Sudanese, Eritreans Threatened With Prolonged or Indefinite Detention
March 13, 2013 -- Israeli authorities are threatening detained Eritrean and Sudanese nationals, including asylum seekers, with prolonged detention to pressure them to leave Israel, Human Rights Watch and the Hotline for Migrant Workers said today. Since December 11, 2012, Israel’s pressure has convinced several hundred detained Sudanese and one Eritrean to leave Israel, and in February 2013, some 50 detained Eritreans agreed under similar pressure to leave for Uganda. All 50 remain in Israeli detention.

Sudanese and Eritreans face a real risk of harm if they return to their home countries. Under Sudanese law, anyone who has visited Israel faces up to 10 years in prison in Sudanand Sudanese officials have said the courts will apply the law. Because of credible persecution fears relating to punishment for evading indefinite military service in Eritrea, 80 percent of Eritrean asylum seekers worldwide are granted some form of protection. For years, Israel has refused to process Eritrean and Sudanese asylum claims, although at the end of February it began to register at least some detainees’ claims.

“Israel’s prolonged detention of asylum seekers apparently aims to shatter all hope so they feel they have no real choice but to leave the country,” said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of browbeating some of the world’s most abused and vulnerable people into giving up their rights and putting themselves at grave risk, Israel should release asylum seekers while their claims are examined and protect anyone found to risk serious harm if returned.”

Human Rights Watch and Hotline for Migrant Workers (HMW), an Israeli nongovernmental organization,said that if Israel returned anyone to a place where the person’s life or freedom would be threatened, such return would violate international law’s prohibition on refoulement – forced return to a serious risk of persecution.

The groups said Israel would also be violating the refoulement prohibition if a person “chose” return after Israeli authorities had threatened prolonged or indefinite detention as the only alternative. The 1951 Refugee Convention bars the return “in any manner whatsoever” to places where a person would face a serious risk of persecution.

Refoulement can also occur as a result of a chain deportation, in which refugees or asylum seekers are sent to third countries that predictably will not respect their rights as asylum seekers but instead send them back to places of persecution.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has confirmed that Sudanese agreeing to leave Israel in recent months were sent to third countries through which they only transited and traveled on to Sudan. Human Rights Watch and HMW said those countries had no obligation to allow Sudanese nationals to enter, which means they would have been forced to travel onward to Sudan.

In early March, HMW spoke with the only Eritrean to have “agreed” under pressure to go to Uganda who says he was refused entry there and deported to Cairo for onward deportation to Eritrea. The only alternative the Egyptian authorities gave him was to return to Israel to once again face indefinite detention, which he rejected. On March 6, he flew to Eritrea.

Pressuring Sudanese and Eritreans to leave Israel for third countries that have no obligation to allow them to leave airport transit zones risks indirectly forcing them back to their own countries, Human Rights Watch and HMW said.

Israel is holding more than 2,000 African nationals in two detention centers near the Egyptian border. This includes at least 1,100 Eritreans and 600 Sudanese, all of whom have little prospect of being released because of restrictive Israeli asylum laws and policies. Hundreds of the Eritreans only reached Israel after surviving kidnapping in Sudan and Egypt, and tortureby criminal gangs in Egypt’s Sinai desert.

About 50,000 other Eritrean and Sudanese nationals live in Israel’s cities. Israel has informally suspended their deportation, but senior officials have repeatedly threatened to deport them without officially clarifying whether they would first be allowed to claim asylum. In early March, the Israeli media reported that the Interior Minister said he planned to detain all “infiltrators” – which Israeli lawdefines as anyone who irregularly enters Israeland which includes the 50,000 – and to deport them to a still-to-be-identified third country.

On March 3, HMW spoke by phone with an Eritrean man in Cairo who said he agreed to fly on February 28 from Israel to Uganda after Israeli officials refused to register his asylum claim and threatened to detain him for three years. He said the Ugandan authorities refused him entry and deported him to Cairo, where the authorities also refused him entry but said he could fly back to Israel where he faced further prolonged detention. After two days without sleep, the man refused and flew to Eritrea on March 6.

On March 4, Israel’s attorney general called on the Interior Ministry not to send any Eritrean citizen “to any destination outside Israel’s borders” until a range of legal issues had been clarified. In early March, UNHCR also reported that in mid-February, the authorities had begun handing out larger numbers of asylum application forms to detainees.

Human Rights Watch and HMW said that the attorney general’s statement was a positive move, but that the Interior Ministry should not remove any Sudanese nationals either, should allow all detainees wishing to claim asylum to do so, should release them while their claims are examined, and should end all threats of prolonged detention.

The majority of those currently in detention entered Israel in or after June 2012 and were detained on arrival under Israel’s recently amended “Prevention of Infiltration” law, also known as the “Anti-Infiltration” law, which allows the authorities to detain anyone irregularly entering Israel. Israeli authorities have also used a September 2012 regulationto arrest and detain about 250 people, most of them Eritrean and Sudanese nationals who have been living in Israel for several years.

The 2012 regulation allows the authorities to detain and deport any “infiltrator” who is suspected of – but not necessarily charged with or convicted of – offenses “endangering national security or the public peace.” UNHCR officials in Israel and Israeli groups working with refugees say that many people detained under the regulation were suspected of only modest offenses, such as minor assault charges or possession of stolen goods such as mobile phones.

HMW has interviewed almost 1,000 Eritrean and Sudanese detainees in recent months and has documented the departure of hundreds of detained Sudanese nationals since December 11 after the authorities refused to register their asylum claims and threatened to detain them for three years or indefinitely.

“When I asked for asylum, the Ministry of Interior staff said,‘Israel doesn’t want black people here,’”a detained Sudanese man told HMW staff on December 19.“He told me I should go back to my country and that anyone who did not agree to leave would stay in prison for three years. I know many people who were told the same and who went back to Sudan.”

In January and February, HMW interviewed dozens of Eritrean detainees, some of whom have been detained for almost a year, who also said Israeli officials refused to register their asylum claims and told them that they had to choose between years in detention or removal to Uganda or Eritrea. HMW said that in the first two weeks of February, around 50 Eritreans signed documents “agreeing” under this pressure to be removed to Uganda.

“It doesn’t matter how you dress this up, Israel is pushing people into a corner and giving them the repugnant choice of years of hardship in detention or removal from Israel,” said Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator with HMW. “Those agreeing to leave say it was no choice at all. All they want is to get out of detention.”

On February 25, UNHCR in Tel Aviv criticized Israel’s pressure on detained Eritreans, saying that “agreement to return to Eritrea under a jail ultimatum cannot be considered voluntary by any criterion.”

On February 18, Interior Minister Eli Yishai told the Knesset that Israel had no formal agreement with Uganda or any other country governing transfer of Eritreans, although he added that Israel would continue “with the utmost decisiveness” to ensure that Eritrean and Sudanese nationals would “voluntarily or involuntarily” leave Israel.

UNHCR says it has received reports that the Israeli authorities have filmed detainees threatened with prolonged or indefinite detention who were asking to sign a statement saying they came to Israel to work and that they wanted to return to Eritrea or go to another country.

A Sudanese detainee told HMW in December that he had seen Interior Ministry staff filming people, “asking them to say they wanted to go back to Sudan” and that when the person being filmed said the wrong thing, the staff members said: “Don't say that! Just say that you are from this and that country and that you want to go back.”

UNHCR also said Israel’s failure until late February to register any detainees’ asylum claims, and the resulting prospect of prolonged or indefinite detention, meant detainees faced significant pressure to agree to leave Israel. In its February 25 statement, the refugee agency said detainees “don’t receive full access to the refugee apparatus, and when there’s no access ... lead to release, then there is no voluntary return.”

UNHCR Detention Guidelines say asylum seekers should be detained only “as a last resort” as a strictly necessary and proportionate measure to achieve a legitimate legal purpose and that countries should not detain asylum seekers simply for the purpose of deportation. Detention is permitted only briefly to establish a person’s identity or for longer periods if it is the only way to achieve broader aims such as protecting national security or public health.

Israel does not have formal transfer or readmission agreements with any African country. UNHCR’s Executive Committee says that states should expeditiously return people not needing international protection to “their countries of origin, other countries of nationality or countries with an obligation to receive them back,” but does not list as an appropriate option returns or transfers to countries that have no connections or obligations whatsoever toward the person being returned.

Human Rights Watch and HMW said that sending Eritreans to Uganda and Sudanese nationals to other countries where they had never been before clearly did not meet UNHCR’s criteria.

“Sudanese and Eritrean nationals returning to their home countries from Israel risk persecution,” Simpson said. “Without formal agreements monitored by UNHCR, the Israeli authorities should not be transferring them to other countries either, let alone pressuring them to forego claiming asylum and to leave Israel.”
Human Rights Watch Press release

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