Last Thursday we blogged about Israel’s intention to deport African asylum seekers back to unnamed African countries in exchange for “benefit packages”–basically weapons. Now comes the news that last night Israel repatriated–for the first time–14 Eritrean asylum seekers back to their country. This has been confirmed in the last few days by detainees at Saharonim prison–near the border with Egypt–who have contacted the Israeli Hotline for Migrant Workers. The 14 Eritreans, who spent the last year in the prison, will be returned to Asmara. According to detainees, the Eritrean Ambassador in Israel was supposed to escort them on their return.
The Israeli authorities haven’t confirmed the information yet. However, there have been reports in the last few days that the Israeli Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration has been getting imprisoned Eritrean asylum seekers in Saharonim to sign “willful emigration” documents that allow deporting them from Israel. This process also goes against the United Nations’ stance on the matter and follows the Attorney General of Israel’s decision to approve the procedure three weeks ago.
According to the Hotline for Migrant Workers, detainees are repeatedly told by Ministry of Interior representatives at the internment camps are their only way out it to go back to Eritrea, and that otherwise they will spend years in prison.
Starting from June 23, about 350 of Saharonim detainees went on hunger strike to protest their detention. The Israeli Prison Authorities made extensive efforts to end the mass hunger strike and succeeded on their mission on June 30.
In a letter by one of the hunger strikers that was published in Hebrew last week, he described their encounter with immigration authority officers during the hunger strike:
We were prosecuted and victimized in our country and we didn’t have democracy. We were not able to live in peace. Many among us were tortured and raped in Sinai. When we reached this democratic state of Israel, we didn’t expect such harsh punishment in prison and we still don’t know which crime it is that makes us suffer for such a long time in this prison. We lost all hope and became frustrated by this situation so that we ask you to either provide us with a solution or send us to our country, no matter what will happen to us, even if we have to endure death penalty by the Eritrean regime.
At the end of the hunger strike, more Eritreans decided to leave the Israeli prison. According to the hotline, about 200 Eritreans have already signed an agreement to go back to Eritrea, but the detainees have been told that the Eritrean Embassy is able to arrange passports to only to 15 people a day and therefore the process will be gradual.
There are some 36,000 Eritrean asylum seekers (out of a total of 50,000 African asylum seekers) in Israel. Hundreds of them are being held in Israeli prison facilities under the Anti-Infiltration Law from last year which allows imprisoning of asylum seekers for three years without trial.