The Interior Ministry's Population and Immigration Authority said the 177 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers who left Israel in July voluntarily returned to their home countries as part of a procedure approved by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, but the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and Israeli human rights groups claim the "voluntary departure" procedure cannot be applied to asylum seekers who are held in detention facilities.
Some of the African migrants who left in July were held in the Saharonim detention facility, while others lived in different Israeli cities. The Population Authority said some of those who left Israel did so on their own volition, but it did not say how many of the 177 left the country willingly.
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According to data presented by the Interior Ministry, only one African infiltrated Israel in July, compared with 268 who infiltrated Israel during the same month last year. The Population Authority attributed the sharp decrease in infiltrations to measures taken by the government, including the enforcement of the infiltration prevention law and the erection of a security fence along the border with Egypt.
Attorney general in south Tel Aviv (Photo: Motti Kimchi)
UNHCR and Israeli rights groups have criticized the government's actions, claiming some of them – including a law that allows the State to detain asylum seekers without trial for an unlimited period of time – violate international law and the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.
According to the Population Authority, some 55,000 asylum seekers still reside in Israel. About 50,000 of them are Sudanese or Eritrean nationals. On Monday AG Weinstein toured south Tel Aviv, where many of the migrants live, and said the government's policy is to fight the infiltration phenomenon. "Our small country has a hard time harboring this many infiltrators. I think the government's policy is bearing fruit," he said.
Photo: Motti Kimchi
Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar said Israel was gradually progressing in the implementation of the policy to return illegal migrants to their home countries or to send them to other countries. "With each month that passes there are fewer and fewer illegal infiltrators in Israel," he said.
Last week, representatives of the Eritrean community in Israel held a press conference in which they warned that their return to the African country would put their lives in danger. They accused Israel of crossing a "red line" after the so-called "voluntary deportation" of 14 Eritreans some three weeks ago. They were sent back to their homelands from the Saharonim detention facility, where they were detained.
During the press conference, held in south Tel Aviv’s Shapira neighborhood, community spokespersons decried the procedure. Davit Damuz said the Israeli government was endangering the lives of those expelled to Eritrea.
"They were expelled from prison in Israel, where they were detained without a release date and without knowing what would happen to them," said Damuz. "In Israel they decided to call it 'voluntary return' – but that's not true. When there's no other possibility, there's no such thing as voluntary and there's no such thing as choice.
"The Israeli government exploited their situation, and now their lives are in danger. We call on the Israeli government to put an immediate stop to the return of the refugees to Eritrea. This return is extradition of the refugees to the dictatorship in Eritrea. This return endangers their lives," he said.
Attorney Nimrod Avigal of the Hotline for Migrant Workers said: "Under the cynical title 'voluntary returnm,' hundreds of asylum seekers are being expelled in violation of international law and the UN's position. The 'voluntary departure' forms are signed by broken people who have lost hope after being held in a prison for over a year under constant pressure."
According to the hotline, one of the detained migrants reported that "everyday representatives of the Interior Ministry show up and tell us 'your refugee requests will not be processed and Israel will never accept you, so you should sign and go back.'"
On the other hand, Shlomo Maslawi, chairman of the south Tel Aviv neighborhoods' action committee, said "We mustn't forget that they are infiltrators. Most of them are seeking work and have arrived in Israel illegally after staying in another country, Egypt. The government boasts that dozens (of asylum seekers) have departed, but we are drowning in a sea of tens of thousands."
According to the Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration, "The process of 'voluntary departure' is supervised and carried out in accordance with a procedure that was authorized by the attorney general."
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