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The farce of Israel’s ‘voluntary deportation’ policy

After fleeing Eritrea and being tortured in Egypt, the Israeli government gave Daniel two choices: either voluntarily deport yourself to Rwanda or go to prison.

By: Sigal Rozen

“You see this one? When they’ll come to take everybody, this one I’ll hide in my home!” told me Yossi, owner of a shop in south Tel Aviv, and one of the leaders of the campaign against the “infiltrators” as he pointed at his employee, Daniel (not his real name). During Knesset hearings, Yossi would talk about the Eritrean infiltrators who get drunk, start fights and leave broken bottles and blood stains next to his shop. Yet he loved and appreciated his hardworking Eritrean employee.

When the Holot detention facility was established, they didn’t take everyone. There is no room for everybody. When the orders to go to Holot came, Yossi didn’t hide Daniel, and the latter obediently headed for the detention facility in the middle of the desert. While in Holot, Daniel once again applied for asylum after realizing that his previous attempts did not suffice.

Reading the 37 pages of Daniel’s asylum interview made me shiver. Daniel informed the interviewer, who was acting as a hostile interrogator, that he was forcibly drafted into the Eritrean military at the age of 16 and served for 11 years. In 2007 he was wrongly accused of defecting from the military — although he was inside Eritrea at the time, serving his country as he was ordered. Fearful of what will happen to him, Daniel fled to neighboring Ethiopia. During the crossing, Eritrean soldiers fired at him, according to the shoot-to-kill policy at the border, but he escaped unharmed.

Daniel reached the Shimelba refugee camp in Ethiopia and from there walked to Shagarab refugee camp in Sudan. There, along with other Eritrean friends, he paid Bedouin smugglers from the Rashaida tribe to smuggle them to Libya, en route to Europe. “They told us they’ll take us to Libya, but they took us to Egypt,” Daniel told the interviewer from the Interior Ministry. “Egyptian soldiers who caught us and locked us up in a prison for a month… we didn’t know we’re going back to Eritrea. The Red Cross was there and told us to sign papers and that’s how they returned us.”

Daniel doesn’t add any details about the harsh detention conditions in Egypt, nor about his fear of being deported to Eritrea. The interviewee doesn’t ask. Daniel adds: “I returned to the city of Bats’a and then they took us to Wi’a prison.” The clerk asks: “How long did you stay in prison?” Daniel responds: “We were underground. It was dark. We would go out to the bathroom once a day.” Daniel doesn’t elaborate, and it is clear that the clerk doesn’t encourage him to expand on the matter.

The final report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, based on 550 interviews with Eritreans who have been able to escape the country recently, describes in detail the conditions of detention in Wi’a prison during the year when Daniel was held.

One former detainee told the authors of the report: “Our life was very hard in the underground prison, in particular because of the heat and the number of people in the cell. Even the water was limited and hard to drink; the lack of hygiene was unbearable. We were not able to wash ourselves. We had no medical assistance, we were not receiving treatment. The conditions were inhumane. We were 400 men with underage and old people.”

Another former Wi’a detainee adds: “They put water on your body. It is very cold in the night. We were shivering. You are outside. They tie your legs and arms and hang you from the tree for 45 minutes. Some might have died but the officers simply said those who disappeared had been transferred.”

In this prison, Daniel was held underground for five months until he was able to escape when he was let out to the bathroom.

Once again, Daniel escaped to Ethiopia, this time to the Mai Aini refugee camp. From there he went to Shagarab. When he heard that Eritrean soldiers were entering the camp to kidnap defectors, he fled to Egypt with a group of Eritreans, where he was kidnapped and taken to the torture camps in Sinai. When asked by the interviewer about whether he was hurt in Sinai, Daniel answered tersely: “I was beaten with chains.”

Daniel also told the Interior Ministry clerk about his political activism in Israel as part of the Eritrean resistance movement “Smer.” When asked what he thinks will happen if he returns to Eritrea, Daniel replied: “I won’t have peace there… they will hit me and put me in prison.”

None of this prevented the Interior Ministry from rejecting Daniel’s asylum claim. In July 2015, Daniel received the rejection letter, which like all other rejection letters handed to Eritrean asylum seekers in Israel, stated: “By decision of the Director of Population and Immigration Authority, authorized by the Interior Minister, evasion of army service or deserting of army duties in and of themselves, or with no connection to any of the grounds listed in the refugee convention, are not enough to establish grounds for political persecution in accordance with the convention…”

Daniel came to me worried, saying that Interior Ministry officials at Holot have ordered him to leave to Rwanda. Should he refuse, he will be jailed in Saharonim prison indefinitely. I told him that they cannot deport him by force, and that we at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants will do everything we can to prevent his incarceration. I asked him to wait a few days.

Daniel didn’t wait. A few nights later he sent me a photo of him holding a suitcase. I tried calling him, but his phone was already disconnected.

Four days later, Daniel called me from Kampala, Uganda: “I had no choice,” he explained, “the Interior Ministry told me I must leave to Rwanda. I thought that maybe it won’t be that bad. They promised me $3,500 and I thought I could start a new life in Rwanda with that money. We flew through Turkey. We were 13 Eritreans from Israel. When he arrived in Kigali, immigration people there took our money and documents and took us to a house. They told us that we must cross to Uganda and then they smuggled us there. I am here without any documents and papers now and I don’t know what to do.” The call was disconnected before I could say that I will try to help him. Since then, his phone has been turned off, a familiar sign of further attempts to flee to other countries in search of safety.

Now all that is left to do is to wait for the next call. My past experience taught me that the next call often comes after weeks or months, often from a European country. The refugees report about their good living conditions and praise God for their deliverance. Sometimes the next call comes from another African country with a meek request for financial assistance. Sometimes the next call never comes.

Originally published on +972 Magazine