Breakthrough Decision on Eritrean Asylum Seekers

In a major development for Eritrean asylum seekers in Israel, the Jerusalem Appeals Tribunal ruled that the government’s position that Eritrean army deserters are not entitled to refugee status is a violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Israel is a signatory. This follows a petition filed two years ago by NIF grantee Hotline for Refugees and Migrants and the Tel Aviv University’s Refugee Rights Clinic on behalf of an Eritrean asylum seeker. The court ruled that desertion from the army of Eritrea can be grounds for asylum if it was seen as a political act by that country and if it was followed by severe punishment.

The ruling means that the government will not be able to reject applications for asylum from Eritreans out-of-hand. Between 2009 and July 2016, Eritreans submitted 7,218 asylum requests. Only eight were approved, while 3,105 are still awaiting a response. The rest were rejected or withdrawn.

Elad Azar, the custody judge who heard the case in Jerusalem, said: “Even in the completely theoretical case in which it was found that refugee status had to be granted to all those asylum seekers, I believe this isn’t a quantity Israel is incapable of digesting or that would lead to unreasonable results, given that in any case, all of them are expected to remain in Israel for a long time even if their applications are rejected… Limiting the protection given under the Refugee Convention by not applying it to people entitled to refugee status, just because there are many of them, doesn’t comply with the Refugee Convention or the rules of Israeli administrative law.”

Reut Michaeli, executive director of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, said: “It’s regrettable that judicial intervention was needed so that the Interior Ministry would apply the rules of the Refugee Convention, to which Israel is committed, instead of trying to find tortuous ways of circumventing them. In every Western country, large proportions of Eritrean asylum seekers are accepted as refugees, and just recently, another UN report revealed the torture, slave conditions, and systematic human rights violations that happen in the Eritrean army, and in the country in general. I hope that now, the asylum system will finally begin to operate in compliance with international standards.”

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September 2016