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Asylum-Seekers Who “Voluntarily” Left Israel Endure Torture in Sudan, Inability to Obtain Legal Statues in Uganda and Rwanda

A new report published by Hotline for Refugees and Migrants and ASSAF – aid organization for refugees and asylum seekers in Israel, exposes consequential flaws in the “voluntary” return procedure, under which 9,026 African asylum seekers have left Israel over the past two years. The report includes testimonies of asylum-seekers who were detained and tortured in Sudan, and are still subject to persecution by the regime. Other testimonies prove that the third countries to which asylum seekers are being sent, Uganda and Rwanda, do not offer any protection, legal status or guarantees to the asylum-seekers’ safety. Because they are denied any rights and all their identifying documents are confiscated upon arrival in Uganda and Rwanda, the asylum-seekers are forced to continue their journey, exposed to the dangers of government detention, and demands for ransom and abuse by traffickers.

On March 31, the Israel Ministry of interior announced a new policy, under which Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers will be deported to two African countries; those who refuse will be indefinitely detained in Saharonim prison. On September 2013, the Israeli High Court of Justice accepted the NGOs petition and struck down the 3rd amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law, which allowed the government to detain asylum-seekers without trial for three years in Saharonim prison. On September 2014, the High Court accepted a second petition and struck down the 4th amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law, which allowed the State to indefinitely detain asylum-seekers in the Holot facility. As a response, on December 2014 the Knesset passed a new amendment, which limited the detention period in Holot to 20 months.

The report is based on interviews of 47 asylum seekers who left Israel since the Holot detention facility was opened in December 2013, due to the pressure exerted by the Israeli government on asylum-seekers to leave Israel ‘voluntarily’ or face prolonged detention. The report’s authors note that it was very difficult to collect information, because many of those who left the country have little or no access to phones or the Internet. Many, especially those in Sudan, refused to talk with human rights organizations for fear that it would place their lives at risk. The report does not include testimonies from Eritrea due to the tight control the dictatorship exerts over the country, where Internet access is rarely available.

The testimonies show that those who left for Sudan face detention, torture and persecution. Seven Sudanese who were coerced into leaving Israel were jailed upon their arrival in Khartoum, and six were tortured in prison for weeks or months and were accused of spying for Israel. Even after their release, they’ve been subjected to threats and recurring police questioning. The authorities confiscated their property, including their passports, laptops and money. Three asylum-seekers reported that they were trying to flee Sudan again; one managed to escape with his family to Jordan while another managed to reach France. Idriss, whose testimony appears in the report, left Israel in April 2014 being summoned to Holot, said he was jailed, released, and then jailed again. “They punched me and hit me many times with a plastic tube. They asked me what I did in Israel and why I was there so long. They asked what I know about the SLM (Sudanese Liberation Movement) and who works for them in Israel. They come to me when I was at work, they interrogated my mother. I am very scared. I regret having left, but between Holot and Sudan there was no good decision. Holot is hard, but after what has happened in Sudan I would have stayed in Holot,” he said.

The report documents the disorganized procedure of transferring asylum-seekers to third countries: Those departing do not receive any prior information on their country of destination, and face detention there and difficulties in applying for asylum because their identifying documents are taken away when they arrive. Above all, the procedure for departure to third countries does not provide any guarantees that the asylum-seekers’ rights will be protected in their destination or that they will be safe from forcible deportation to their country of origin. Israeli authorities also do not follow-up regarding those who have departed – all in contradiction to UNHCR recommendations. Because the asylum-seekers are not granted any rights or protection in the third countries, many of those who leave continue on their journey toward Europe, during which they are exposed to arrest, demands for ransom, and abuse by smugglers.

One of the testimonies is Dawitt’s, an Eritrean asylum seeker, who lived in Israel seven years. After not receiving a response to his asylum request and being summoned to Holot, he left for Rwanda in January 2014. “Two days after my arrival I went to Uganda with a smuggler. Around 5 AM, we were caught and taken to jail because we did not have papers. We were in jail a few hours. They asked us where we were from, if we were jihad or al-Shabab. We said we came from Israel, which had expelled us to Rwanda and that we had walked for six hours. We paid $1,200 and they let us out of jail. We were afraid; everything was illegal because we had no documents. Without documents you are like the dog in the street”. From Uganda Dawitt proceeded to South Sudan. “We paid $100 each and we got to Juba. Every part of the way you have to pay to continue, because we have no passport and no nothing“, he said. “In South Sudan, if someone on the street realizes you aren’t from there, they will pull a gun on you.”

Bashir, an asylum seeker from Sudan left from Saharonim prison to Uganda in March 2014. Due to lack of legal status, Bashir left Uganda to South Sudan, and from there to Sudan: “At the airport in Khartoum they arrested us. We said we came from South Sudan, but they said our shoes were from Israel and they knew those shoes. These were shoes we got from Immigration in Israel. At first we denied it, because we were afraid they would kill us if they knew we came from Israel. They took us to Kobar prison, beat us with sticks, and asked if we had come from Israel. In the end we admitted that we had. For three months I was beaten, and now I have problems with my feet because of the beatings. After they freed me I escaped to Egypt with no documents. I’m in a bad situation; I can’t work because of my feet.”

In addition to questions of the “voluntary” return procedure’s very legality, testimonies indicate there are severe shortcomings in the conduct of Israeli authorities. For instance, in two cases that have come to the NGOs’ attention, asylum-seekers believed they were leaving to a third country but were effectively deported to their country of origin. In other cases, an Immigration Authority representative gave asylum-seekers forged passports.

In light of the difficulties involved in collecting information about those who’ve left Israel, the authors mentioned that much remains unknown even after this report. Nonetheless, due to the revelations contained in the report, they expect the State of Israel to publicize the agreements with the third countries and specify the guarantees that are given to the asylum-seekers arriving from Israel, especially due to the new policy that increases the pressure on the asylum-seekers by threatening them with indefinite imprisonment. The authors call on Israel to shoulder part of the global responsibility toward those escaping their countries in search of safety and protection – instead of exposing them to additional dangers.

Read the full report – Where There is No Free Will: Israel’s “Voluntary Return” Procedure for Asylum-Seekers