For refugees in Israel, 'voluntary departure' is a losing proposition

African asylum seekers who find their way to Israel are denied access to services and paid to leave

TEL AVIV — Israel’s Immigration Authority is offering Teshoma Nega, a 35-year old who fled Eritrea because his life was in danger, two bad alternatives. The first option for Nega, who has been in Israel since 2008, is to reside in Holot Residency Center, an isolated desert facility where he has limited freedom of movement and no access to employment. The second is to leave Israel through its voluntary departure program.

"I cannot go back to Eritrea. It is too much risky for me," Nega told Al Jazeera outside the Holot Residency Center, where he has been living for ten months alongside other asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan. "I have to wait for another kind of opportunity."

Nega is one of about 55,000 people who have fled to Israel from Eritrea, where rights abuses are rampant, or war-torn Sudan.

Over the past two years, more than 9,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees took the risk that Nega refuses to take, and exited Israel through its voluntary departure program. The majority of them returned to their home countries, while some went to other African destinations. Israeli authorities grant those who agree to leave a one-way flight ticket and $3,500.

The voluntary departure program was created in 2012 to encourage African asylum-seekers — whom the government views as "infiltrators" that threaten the “Jewish identity” of the state — to leave by their own will.

Israel doesn’t deport Sudanese refugees because it has no diplomatic relations with Sudan, and will not deport Eritreans to avoid breaching the United Nations Refugee Convention’s non-refoulement principle, which forbids forced return of people back to places where they are likely to be persecuted or imprisoned.

But Israel’s policy is in itself a breach of the convention, according to Sigal Rozen, a public policy coordinator at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, a nongovernmental organization based in Tel Aviv.

Rozen is co-author of a recently published report on the circumstances that persuade asylum seekers to leave Israel voluntarily.

The research – based on dozens of interviews with asylum seekers in Israel and abroad – revealed that many Sudanese and Eritreans chose to return to their dangerous homelands because Israel made their lives miserable by withholding work permits, requiring frequent renewal of visas, restricting their access to health care and keeping them under constant threat of detention.

"When the Israeli authorities offer them $3,500 to leave — then they don't ask questions," Rozen told Al Jazeera.

"Many of them are so desperate and sometimes even so hungry that they just take the money and leave no matter where to," she said.

Temporary protection

By the end of 2014, more than 42,000 Sudanese and Eritreans remained in Israel, including about 1,700 who, like Nega, have been forced to reside in Holot Residency Center.

Those not in Holot tend to live in Tel Aviv’s poorer neighborhoods or in smaller cities. They are not permitted to work, nor are they entitled to medical or welfare services except in life-threatening situations.

Worldwide, 58.8 percent of asylum applicants from Sudan and 67.2 percent of asylum applicants from Eritrea were recognized as refugees in 2013, according to data collected by the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Since 2009, Israel has awarded refugee status to only four Eritreans nationals, according to official state figures. Israel and Sudan view each other as "enemy states," so Sudanese people cannot be granted refugee status in Israel.

In Israel, 99 percent of asylum requests from Eritreans and Sudanese have been rejected. Instead, they are granted temporary protection through short-term visas.

Asylum seekers are also denied access to fair and efficient asylum procedures, and are coerced into leaving the country, according to a September 2014 report by Human Rights Watch.

The report found that asylum seekers who agree to leave Israel for an African country are likely to be arrested there, and face difficulties requesting asylum when they arrive.

Israel’s Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the Immigration Authority, did not reply to any of Al Jazeera’s questions about the voluntary departure program or about Israel's responsibility towards those who agree to leave.

However, the state’s position is clearly stated in a Supreme Court hearing that took place two months ago, in response to a petition filed by human rights organizations against Israel’s treatment of asylum seekers.

State lawyers wrote that Israel is committed to the non-refoulment principle and does not unlawfully deport people to places where they are in danger. They stated that immigration policies require tools and arrangements to tackle and prevent illegal immigration. The voluntary departure program is a solution that is "beneficial for the illegal alien and for the state," according to the Immigration Authority’s website.

The practice of voluntary departure is used by other countries as well and is not in itself a breach of non-refoulment, according to Reuven Zielger of the Refugee Studies Center at the University of Oxford.

However, Ziegler added, he is not aware of any other government that has a policy of paying asylum seekers to leave.

He suggested Israel should publicize the agreements it has with African governments. These agreements make it possible for Israel to send Sudanese and Eritrean nationals to third countries in Africa.

Israel declared in the Supreme Court hearing that it has such agreements with two African countries, but the state refused to reveal any more details.

“The state is not willing to say which are the destination states, is not willing to publish the agreement with these states, and is not willing at all to say what guarantees at all are provided by these states,” said Ziegler. “These are all factors which I think raise serious concern.”

That concern was the reality for Sadiq Al-Sadiq, a 26-year old asylum seeker from Sudan’s Darfur region, who entered Israel in 2009.

Sadiq lived in Tel Aviv for four years on short-term visas that needed to be renewed every month or two. Then, in March 2014, the Immigration Authority subpoenaed him to report to the Holot Residency Center.

'Treat us as human beings'

Sadiq Al-Sadiq, 26, took the "voluntary departure" option offered by Israel only to be denied entry into Ethiopia. (Yermi Brenner/Al Jazeera)

Sadiq told Al Jazeera that the warrant to reside in an "open jail" — without the ability to receive an education, save money or live a normal life — convinced him to leave Israel.

He agreed to participate in the country’s voluntary departure program, but asked to go anywhere but his home country of Sudan, where, as a former activist who spoke out against the regime, his life would be in danger.

At the end of April last year, in Tel Aviv’s international airport, a representative of the Immigration Authority gave him 3,500 USD and a one-way ticket.

"In Ben-Gurion airport, I received a ticket to Ethiopia. I said, OK, I will go to Ethiopia and see what I can do," Sadiq said.

"When I arrived, the Ethiopian authority told me I don't have a chance to enter the country," he said.

Ethiopian authorities ordered Sadiq to board a flight to Sudan. He refused and asked to apply for asylum in Ethiopia but was not permitted.

He then spent nine days and nights in Addis Ababa’s international airport, sleeping on a bench, waiting for approval to enter the country, but was denied. Eventually, he said, he was returned against his will to Israel.

Now he is once again living in Tel Aviv without a work permit and forced to constantly renew his visa. He speaks Hebrew fluently, and wants to study and become and engineer.

He believes one day the violence in his homeland of Sudan will end, and he will return to help rebuild it.

But for now he’s in Israel, with temporary protection, without refugee status, and, he said, with a lot of hardship and uncertainty.

"I hope the Israeli government can change their policies," said Sadiq.

"Treat us as human beings, as refugees, as genocide survivors."

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