A Step Toward Recognition of Eritrean Refugees
A court ruling moves Israel closer to handling asylum seekers' refugee requests on an individual basis. The ruling Sunday by the custody appeals tribunal in Jerusalem regarding the Entrance to Israel law is an important legal
A court ruling moves Israel closer to handling asylum seekers’ refugee requests on an individual basis.
The ruling Sunday by the custody appeals tribunal in Jerusalem regarding the Entrance to Israel law is an important legal milestone in protecting asylum seekers. The tribunal overruled the Interior Ministry’s legal opinion that Eritrean asylum seekers who deserted their country’s army can never be accorded refugee status.
Most asylum seekers in Israel are from Eritrea, and many of them fled military service, which has no time limits in their country. Those who oppose such service are considered opponents of the regime and are persecuted, imprisoned and tortured. This is not service like in the Israel Defense Forces; it is more like a prison sentence that can last for an entire lifetime, and so it is comparable to slavery.
The Interior Ministry has so far flatly refused to consider this situation as a reason to accept people as refugees, even if it did not deport them back to Eritrea because of Israel’s obligation not to repatriate a person whose life or liberty would be at risk in their home country.
The state wants to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to Eritrean asylum seekers. On the one hand, it does not deport them to their country of origin. But on the other, it denies them the status of refugees and takes away their freedom by locking them up in the Holot detention center and trying to send them to African countries like Uganda and Rwanda. Or, in less than a worst-case scenario, it neglects them and withholds basic social rights.
In determining that desertion – which is perceived as a political act leading to severe punishment – can fit the definition of “persecution” according to the Refugee Convention, the tribunal has pulled the rug out from under the state’s claim and rejected the position that the Refugee Convention cannot apply to Eritrean asylum seekers. The tribunal also rejected the state’s argument that such an interpretation would lead to immediate recognition of thousands of Eritrean asylum seekers as refugees, ruling that each case should be considered individually, which the state has so far not done.
Granting collective protection to asylum seekers from Eritrea based on the principle of non-repatriation, instead of individual scrutiny of each case, could be considered reasonable if such protection were sincere and real, without the threat of confinement at Holot and deportation to a third country, and with their being allowed to work in Israel and being assured proper healthcare and education services. That the ruling was issued after years of abuse of asylum seekers is a disgrace to the state. Now it must internalize the message in the tribunal’s ruling and give asylum seekers from Eritrea the protection they deserve.