The following is an open letter to Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States
We are deeply concerned that Israel is about to return Eritrean asylum seekers before allowing for an appropriate refugee status determination process to take place.
According to those detained in the Saharonim internment camp for asylum seekers, on July 14, about 15 Eritreans who spent the last year in Saharonim prison were returned to Asmara, Eritrea where they will face probable arrest, torture, and danger to life. We are aware that there are around 200 Eritreans in total who have been designated to return to Eritrea.
If these people are returned, their lives will undoubtedly be in danger as a result. We are concerned that Israeli authorities are not acknowledging the imminent and serious danger to the asylum seekers’ lives nor are they processing their asylum claims responsibly, transparently, or fairly. We believe that such treatment of those who have fled from an oppressive and tyrannical regime is unconscionable.
As Jews, we know that such treatment of the stranger is forbidden by our Torah. As American Jews, we feel that such treatment of a disenfranchised minority challenges our legacy of fighting alongside other minorities for civil rights.
As members of the world community, we call on Israel to uphold its legal obligations. We call upon the Israeli authorities to desist from the attempt to return refugees to dangerous situations without allowing them to have their legal claim for asylum heard and evaluated.
More than 1,000 Eritreans have been locked up for over a year at the Saharonim and Ktziot internment camps in the desert. Every couple days, immigration officers visit them, informing them that their only way out of prison is to go back to their homeland.
Detainees in poor mental state may be willing to risk their lives and ask to go back to a country that according to the U.S. State Department Human Rights Report, detains its national service evaders in life-threatening conditions. Others cannot stand to continue living behind bars and claim that they prefer to die on their own land rather than rot in prison. No matter the explanation they give for their desire to go back, this procedure to pressure asylum seeker detainees is not truly a “Voluntary Return.”
Israeli authorities claim that those who have already been deported and those who are registered to return have expressed a desire to do so and completed the new Voluntary Return Procedure authorized by the Attorney General. The way they have been treated flies in the face of any common sense definition of “voluntary return.”
The supposed consent to be repatriated has only been given after the Israeli Ministry of Interior prevented asylum seekers from applying for refugee status for months, and has turned down every single asylum request of Eritrean national service defectors. Moreover, prisoners are repeatedly told by Ministry of Interior representatives at the internment camps that their only way out is to go back to Eritrea and that otherwise they will spend and indefinite amount of years in prison.
This is not the meaning of “voluntary return.”
All the while, the asylum seekers are kept in harsh desert conditions in the Israeli Negev, each of them given only 2.1 square meters (22,6 square feet) of space on average (compared to the Western average of 8.8 square meters (94.7 square feet) of space per inmate).
After Israeli Prison Authorities ended the mass hunger strike at Saharonim on June 30, more Eritreans supposedly gave their consent to leave the Israeli prison even if it means going back to Eritrea. We heard from several detained asylum seekers that 200 Eritreans have signed this agreement to go back to Eritrea.
We have attached a letter written by an Eritrean who was on the hunger strike in Ward 3 of Saharonim, which was published in Walla. It makes it clear that such a decision is only taken out of complete despair with life in Israeli prison after they were forced out of their week long hunger strike. As you may know, Dr. Tricia Redeker Hepner wrote to the Israeli government in June of 2012 explaining the causes of the mass exodus of Eritrean soldiers from their homeland.
We ask that you attend to this matter with the utmost urgency. The lives of many people depend on your prompt response.
Maya Paley and Stephen Slater are Co-Founders of Right Now: Advocates for African Asylum Seekers in Israel www.asylumseekers.org