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IRIN, 11 March 2013
Imprisoned Eritreans complain of being forced to leave Israel

TEL AVIV, 11 March 2013 (IRIN) – Testimonies of jailed Eritrean migrants
and asylum seekers (collected by a local NGO) say officials at Saharonim
prison in Israel’s Southern Negev desert are coercing them to sign
“voluntary repatriation” forms.

In one of the many testimonies a 28-year-old Eritrean detainee reported
being repeatedly visited by a translator telling her to accept deportation
to a third country (Uganda).

“He said we would not be free from the prison and we can only go to Uganda
or Eritrea. I was frustrated and depressed. I do not want to go to Uganda.
Today they called me and gave me a handwritten form in Tigrinya which
said: `I came from Eritrea to Israel illegally and now I want to go to
Uganda voluntarily. To do this I would like the Eritrean embassy to issue
me a passport and all the necessary documents.’ They asked me to sign it
and wanted to take my picture on video. I refused.”

Israel is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention but does not
recognize Eritreans as refugees, although it does not officially deport
Eritreans and allows them to stay in Israel under a group defence
(temporary group protection).

Staff at the Hotline for Migrant Workers, who collected the testimonies,
say the government is forcibly trying to repatriate Eritreans: “These
people have no access to a refugee status determination process, they are
detained under the new amendment to the infiltration law that came into
effect in June 2012, which allows detention of `infiltrators’ for an
unlimited amount of time; now they are told they will never be allowed to
leave the prison and their only option is to go back to Uganda/Eritrea.
How can this be considered voluntary?” one staff member told IRIN.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) representative in Israel, William Tall, told
IRIN the Ministry of Interior made an attempt to offer relocation to some
23 Eritreans to Uganda but without any result so far.

At the end of February he told Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz there was
nothing voluntary about this process.

One Eritrean, Tesfamihret Habtemariam, was reportedly deported from Israel
earlier this month and is now in detention at Cairo airport after five
years in Israel, and may be returned to Eritrea.

UNHCR advises against repatriating Eritrean nationals because of the
likelihood of their being punished on return to their country.

Israel’s stance

Under an updated Anti-Infiltration law passed in January 2012, all illegal
border crossers are labelled “infiltrators” and can be detained for up to
three years.

The Eritreans being held in detention camps in the south are generally not
notified about their right to claim asylum or given the application forms
needed to do this, report NGOs.

On 18 February, official documents from the Israeli assembly, the Knesset,
quote Interior Minister Eli Yishai saying deportations (by definition
forced) were not yet taking place.

He said more than a 1,000 nationals of northern Sudan and Eritrea had
already left voluntarily and said he hoped a lot more would decide to

“And if it won’t be voluntary leave, it will be involuntary – to their
country or to a different third country, and there is still no third
country to sign an agreement with, but I hope we do find other third
countries that we’ll have an agreement with, and we can transfer the
infiltrators from here, from the Land of Israel, to their country or to
another country, whether it is done willingly or not.”

Last week the Israel’s Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein sent a letter
widely reported in the local press to the director of the Interior
Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority, Amnon Ben Ami,
saying that under no circumstances should Eritrean nationals in Israeli
custody be sent “to any destination outside Israel’s borders” until he
(Weinstein) further clarifies these legal issues.

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