One of the main purposes of the amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law and Israel’s policy toward asylum-seekers is to encourage “voluntary” departure. During 2016 more than 3,000 asylum seekers left Israel under the “voluntary return” process, joining more than 15,000 asylum seekers who had already left the country during the previous three years. According to the Israeli government’s claim, which was never confirmed, Israel has secret agreements with two countries that are willing to absorb asylum-seekers who’ve “agreed” to leave Israel. Israel never disclosed the names of the countries but interviews with asylum-seekers who’ve left Israel indicate that they are sent to Uganda and Rwanda. According to asylum-seekers who’ve left Israel, they “chose” to leave to avoid prolonged detention in Israel following pressure exerted by the Ministry of Interior to get them to leave. Asylum-seekers also report that they’ve left because they were denied legal status in Israel, forced to renew their temporary release permits frequently, and faced abusive and humiliating treatment from Israeli authorities.
The policy of encouraging “voluntary departure” began in late 2012, when the third amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law was in force, under which asylum-seekers were jailed for a period of three years in Saharonim prison and citizens of enemy states, such as Sudan, faced indefinite imprisonment. Ministry of Interior officials would pressure to detained asylum-seekers to sign forms indicating that they are “agreeing” to leave Israel “willingly”. A Sudanese asylum-seeker who was detained under the law described the process: “After the Hotline helped me file an asylum claim, Ministry of Interior people asked me three times whether I’m willing to return to Sudan. I told them no. They kept pressuring me, and said that if something happened to my wife and children in Sudan, it would be my fault. They said that if I stay, I will spend many years in prison. Some said three years, other said five, and then they said eight or even ten years.”
Ministry of Interior officials would make it clear to the detained asylum-seekers that they have no chance of being released from prison and that they will not be recognized as refugees. A Sudanese asylum-seeker told the Hotline: “In the first interview I told [the Border Control Officer, a Ministry of Interior clerk] that I want to seek political asylum. When I said that he pounded the table with his fist and said that there’s no political asylum in Israel and that we come here to work and should go back [to Sudan].” At the same time, Ministry of Interior clerks put up hurdles to delay the filing of asylum claims. This was done because under the Anti-Infiltration Law, if the Ministry did not examine the claim within nine months of its filing, the asylum-seeker could be released from detention.
Due to the prolonged detention in overcrowded cells, the difficulties in applying for asylum and the mental pressure exerted by Ministry of Interior officials, over 2,600 asylum-seekers left Israel while the third amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law was in force. In July 2013, due to criticism of the intensive pressure exerted on detained asylum-seekers to leave Israel, and four months after he himself forbade “voluntary departures” from detention, the Israeli Attorney General formulated the Voluntary Departure Regulation. According to the regulation, the asylum-seekers detained in Saharonim would undergo a recorded interview and will certify with their signature that they ask to leave Israel. The asylum-seekers were told to claim that they wouldn’t want to stay in Israel, even if released from prison. Asylum-seekers outside of detention are not subject to the regulation and this includes the asylum-seekers detained in Holot, since according to the State, Holot is not a prison. The video-documented interview required under the regulation demands numerous repetitions until asylum-seekers say on tape what they need to say and not what they actually feel. To circumvent this tiresome process, the Ministry of Interior transfers asylum-seekers to Holot from Saharonim prison, where they don’t have to undergo to procedure. As a result, the regulation is no longer in use.
Following the abrogation of the third amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law by the High Court of Justice in September 2013, the Israeli government passed a new law intended to bypass the High Court’s ruling. The fourth amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law came into effect in December 2013 mandated that new ‘infiltrators’ and asylum-seekers who’ve entered Israel years ago will be held in indefinite detention without trial in the Holot detention facility. Senior officials in the Immigration Authority and the Minister of Interior declared publicly that the purpose of the law is to encourage “voluntary departure”. The Minister of Interior also stated in the Knesset that the selection of people summoned for detention in Holot will be based on their “prospect for removal.” This means that the threat of indefinite detention was intended to break the spirit of the asylum-seekers and coerce them to “agree” to leave.
For the first time, the fourth amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law affected asylum-seekers who’ve entered Israel years before by obligating them to move to the Holot detention facility and stay there indefinitely Asylum-seekers who came to renew their temporary stay permit at the Immigration Authority were told to report to detention in Holot and at the same time offered to leave Israel “willingly” to avoid the detention and receive $3,500 per person. At the same time, the Ministry of Interior significantly reduced the number of offices where asylum-seekers can renew their visas and the days and hours of work of those offices. As a result, most asylum-seekers were unable to renew their permit, which allows them to work unofficially. Many asylum-seekers were reduced to hunger and “agreed” to leave Israel in the first three months of 2014. As reports about the fate of asylum-seekers who’ve left Israel began reaching Israel, the number of asylum-seekers who were “willing” to leave declined. During the implementation of the fourth amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law, about 6,400 asylum-seekers left Israel.
In September 2014, the High Court once again voided an amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law (this time, the fourth amendment) mandating prolonged detention for asylum-seekers. In response, the government passed a new amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law in December 2014. Under this amendment, asylum-seekers are detained for 20 months in Holot. This time, again, the Minister of Interior and the Spokesperson of the Prime Minister’s Office made it clear that the purpose of the law it to encourage “voluntary” departure of “infiltrators” and that the abrogation of the fourth amendment to the Law by the High Court threatens the ability of the State to continue coercing asylum-seekers into leaving Israel.
Throughout the operation of the Holot detention facility, first under the fourth amendment and currently under the fifth amendment, Ministry of Interior officials and Israeli Prison Services guards in the facility have been exerting pressure on the detainees to “agree” to leave Israel. This pressure intensified in July 2014, probably because the number of those departing Israel decreased significantly. Ministry of Interior officials tell the detainees that very soon those departing Israel will not receive the $3,500 “departure grant” and that soon the possibility to leave to any country other than their country of origin will also be gone. This is how Anwar, a survivor of the genocide in Darfur who is detained in Holot, described it: “The people from the Immigration [Authority] here always tell us: ‘What will you do with yourself, spending your entire life in a desert [location of Holot], sign now [that you’re willing to leave] and go back to your country.’ They keep telling us ‘sign, sign’, but I’m not willing to return to Sudan. I’m worried for my family. I will stay in prison as long as it takes. Even now people are being killed in Darfur. One moment there, and they’ll kill me too.”
Departure to Uganda and Rwanda
On August 28, 2013, the Minister of Interior, Gid’on Saar announced before the Knesset that an agreement has been signed with a third country, and that following the Jewish holidays, ‘infiltrators’ from Sudan and Eritrea will be sent there. Upon the entry into force of the fourth amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law, in December 2013, Israel began offering asylum-seekers who don’t hold valid passport, to leave to an unknown “third” country. Asylum-seekers who left under this arrangement were given $3,500 and a one-way ticket to the third country. Only at the airport in Israel the asylum-seekers learn their destination – Uganda or Rwanda. The agreements that Israel supposedly signed with Uganda and Rwanda were never disclosed and they’re subject to a confidentiality order. Israel never disclosed which assurances to the safety of the asylum-seekers leaving Israel were guaranteed in the agreements or what was given to the African countries in return for accepting Israel’s unwanted ‘infiltrators’. As of April 2015, over 1,200 asylum-seekers have left to Uganda and Rwanda.
Testimonies of asylum-seekers who’ve left to Uganda and Rwanda reveal that an local representative of Israel meets the asylum-seekers at the airports in Entebbe and Kigali and confiscates the laissez-passer (travel document) they’ve been issued in Israel. Israel finances the first two days of their stay in a hotel in Entebbe. In Kigali, the asylum-seekers stay in a hotel for two days, for which the Israeli-appointed representative demands a sum that is the cost of an entire month’s stay in the hotel. Following those two days, the asylum-seekers find themselves with no place to stay, no documents, as illegal residents in a foreign country, without an ability to provide themselves with subsistence. In Rwanda, the local representative does not allow the asylum-seekers to leave the hotel in the first two days and makes it clear to them that they must leave Rwanda, since they don’t have identifying documents. For additional hundreds of dollars, the representative connects them to a local smuggler who transfers them from Rwanda. This is how Tesfay, an asylum-seeker from Eritrea who left Israel described the ordeal: “When they told me at the Ministry of the Interior that I could go to Rwanda, I thought that I would be able to stay there. I knew nothing about Rwanda, but I knew I couldn’t go back to Eritrea. I understood from them that I would have freedom in Rwanda. But in Rwanda they told me I have to leave to another country quickly, because without papers I would be arrested. They offered me to pay them quickly to go to Uganda before I was arrested.” (p. 28-29) Because they’re unable to survive in those countries, many asylum-seekers continue to seek safety elsewhere and some attempt to make their way to Europe through the Mediterranean Sea.
The Fate of Asylum-Seekers who Return to Their Homelands
Most asylum-seekers who left Israel under the “voluntary” departure scheme are Sudanese, many of them survivors of the Darfur genocide. On the other hand, only hundreds of Eritreans left Israel, most of them to Uganda and Rwanda. This gap stems from the fact that most Eritrean refugees worldwide left Eritrea without permission and defected from the prolonged national service in the country. Those who return to their homeland expect to be detained in the airport for defecting, which is perceived as treason by the Eritrean dictatorship, and is treated accordingly. Sudanese citizens, on the other hand, can leave their country without prior approval.
Israeli human rights organizations have been unable to contact Eritreans who’ve returned to their homeland and their fate is unknown. The ability to communicate with Eritrea is constrained significantly as the regime limits access to the internet. The fate of Sudanese asylum-seekers who returned to Sudan is clearer. Many of them were afraid to speak to Israelis after returning, as they are afraid of authorities discovering that they’ve been to Israel, in violation of Sudanese law. Interviews with eight Sudanese asylum-seekers who returned to Sudan from Israel reveal that they’ve been detained and tortured to coerce them to reveal information about opposition activities against the Sudanese regime in Israel and to force them to confess that they are spying for Israel. Asylum-seekers who are released from detention following torture remain under regime surveillance and receive death threats.
Forcible Departures to Third Countries
On March 31, 2015, the Israeli Ministry of Interior announced that it would begin forcing “infiltrators” to leave Israel to third countries. Those who refuse to leave will be indefinite jailed in Saharonim prison under the Entry to Israel Law, which allows to detain a foreigner who is not cooperating with his removal from Israel. Citizens of Eritrea and Sudan who are detained in Holot and whose asylum claim has been rejected or those who never filed asylum claims are the first victims of this policy. Asylum-seekers are invited to interviews at the Ministry of Interior where clerks hand them a letter promising them a good and safe life with legal status and the right to work in an undisclosed third country.
“Voluntary” Departure and International Law
The non-refoulement principle, part of customary international law that applies to all states, dictates that a person may not be deported to a country in which their life or liberty are in danger, or where they are expected to be subjected to torture. The
non-refoulement principle obligates states not only to avoid directly returning asylum seekers to their country of origin. Article 33(1) of the Refugee Convention forbids any return “in any manner whatsoever,” meaning the ban includes any acts on the part of the State which may result in an asylum seeker returning to his country of origin against his will. This also includes prohibition on expelling a person to a third country that does not ensure their rights according to the Refugee Convention and may return them to their country of origin, where they face danger. According to UNHCR guidelines, the State is required to see to asylum seekers’ rights within its borders and not to expel them to a third country. At the same time if the State does reach an agreement with a third country to which asylum seekers are to be transferred, the agreement must be made public and subjected to judicial review, and it must ensure that the deported persons’ rights under the Convention be protected in the third country. Moreover, the State must continuously monitor the fulfillment of these conditions in the third country after expulsion.
December 2015- Deported To The Unknown
April 2015 – Where There is No Free Will: Israel’s “Voluntary Return” Procedure for Asylum-Seekers
November 2014 – “Managing the Despair” || Monitoring report: asylum seekers at the Holot facility April–September 2014
March 2013 – Detained Asylum Seekers Pressured to Leave