Israel: Asylum Seekers Blocked at Border
Eritreans Pushed Back to Egypt, Despite Risk of Abuse
Press release by three human rights and refugee advocate groups
(Jerusalem, October 28, 2012) – The Israeli military has since June 2012 prevented dozens of asylum seekers, most of them Eritreans, from crossing Israel’s newly constructed fence on its border with Egypt, Human Rights Watch, the Hotline for Migrant Workers, and Physicians for Human Rights – Israel said today. Israel has also unlawfully deported dozens more back to Egypt, the three groups said. Israel should stop rejecting asylum seekers at the fence unless its officials determine in a fair procedure that they do not face threats to their lives or freedom or inhuman and degrading treatment because of that rejection.
In forcing asylum seekers and refugees to remain in Egypt and in deporting others, Israel is putting them at risk of prolonged detention in Egyptian prisons and police stations, where they cannot claim asylum, of forcible return to Eritrea, and of serious abuse by traffickers in the Sinai region. Israeli officials’ claims that Israel may seal its borders to anyone are wrong under refugee and human rights law.
“Building a border fence does not give Israel a right to push back asylum seekers,” said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch. “International law is crystal clear: no summary rejection of asylum seekers at the frontier and no forcible return unless and until it is established that their refugee claims are not valid.”
At least seven times since June, Israeli forces patrolling Israel’s newly constructed 240-kilometer border fence with Egypt’s Sinai region have denied entry to dozens of Africans, mostly Eritreans, thousands of whom continue to flee persecution in their country every year. In July, Israeli forces also detained about 40 Eritreans just inside the Israeli border and then forcibly transferred them to Egyptian custody.
The 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Israel is a state party, customary international refugee law, and international human rights law require all countries to respect the principle of nonrefoulement, which prohibits the return of anyone to a place where their life or freedom would be threatened or where they would face the threat of torture or inhuman and degrading treatment. This means anyone seeking asylum may not be summarily rejected at the border and may not be deported unless their claim has been fairly determined.
Based on Israeli government figures, about two-thirds of those trying to cross the border are from Eritrea, where Human Rights Watch has documented widespread and severe abuses against people seeking to avoid mandatory and indefinitely prolonged national service on wages barely sufficient to survive, and against adherents of “unrecognized” religions and government critics.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says that more than 80 percent of Eritreans who claim asylum worldwide are recognized as refugees.
Recent interviews with Eritreans arriving in Israel confirm that many passing through Sinai to reach Israel are facing serious abuses, including torture and rape, by traffickers in Sinai who hold the Eritreans for ransom. Those who pay are allowed to travel onward to reach the Israeli border.
The three human rights organizations recently documented cases in which Israeli border guards blocked Eritreans and others at the fence, firing warning shots in the air, throwing stun grenades and teargas, and using long metal poles to push them back from the border fence. On some occasions, witnesses contended that Israeli soldiers had entered Egyptian territory and detained them until Egyptian forces arrived, although Israeli and Egyptian authorities have denied those accusations.
In one case a group of Eritreans alleged that Israeli soldiers allowed them to enter Israel but then beat them with fists and guns to force them back into Egypt.
“Not only are there credible reports that Israeli soldiers are blocking asylum seekers at the border, but also that they are using violence to do so,” Simpson said. “Israeli authorities should immediately instruct its border patrols to stop abusing people who try to enter Israel.”
Israeli aid groups also say that in recent months Israeli soldiers prevented them from assisting Eritreans who had been waiting for days at the fence. Israeli media reports also said Israeli soldiers had received orders to deny food and water to people trying to enter Israel, whom one soldier described to a reporter as “skinny like skeletons.”
Israeli authorities contend that asylum seekers to whom it denies entry can request asylum from Egyptian authorities, that Israel has the right to seal its borders, and that its obligations toward asylum seekers do not extend to those who are prevented from entering its territory. None of these arguments are correct under the Refugee Convention or international human rights law, the three rights groups said.
UNHCR’s Executive Committee – of which Israel is a member – has stated in its Conclusion No. 22 (1981) that, “In all cases the fundamental principle of non-refoulement involving non-rejection at the frontier must be scrupulously observed.” It elaborated on this in Conclusion No. 82 (1997), stating that the principle of nonrefoulement prohibits “expulsion and return of refugees in any manner whatsoever…whether or not they have been formally granted refugee status” and establishes “the need to admit refugees into the territories of States, which includes no rejection at frontiers without fair and effective procedures for determining status and protection needs.”
UNHCR has stated, when intervening in legal proceedings, that “the extraterritorial applicability of the principle of non-refoulement...applies...to any person within a State Party’s actual control, irrespective of his/her physical location.”
With respect to Israel’s assertion that asylum seekers it turns away at the border can request asylum in Egypt, UNHCR’s Executive Committee has stated in its Conclusion No. 15 (1979) that, “Asylum should not be refused solely on the ground that it could be sought from another state.”
UNHCR’s guidance on the safe third country concept says that while it is legitimate for a state to consider whether an asylum seeker had sought or could have sought asylum in another state he or she had passed through before reaching that state, this cannot be presumed but needs to be examined. UNHCR’s guidance maintains that the obligation to respect the principle of nonrefoulement still applies.
UNHCR’s guidance also “discourages unilateral action by States to return asylum seekers to countries through which they passed without the countries’ agreement, because of the risk of chain deportations, forcible returns to situations of persecution, and of orbit situations as well as the need for international solidarity and burden-sharing.”
Various credible sources say Egypt refuses to give UNHCR – which is solely responsible in Egypt for registering asylum claims – access to sub-Saharan nationals detained for lengthy periods in police stations in Sinai. Since 2008, Human Rights Watch has also documented cases in which Egypt has forcibly returned Eritrean refugees registered asylum seekers, and would-be asylum seekers to Eritrea.
The three rights groups have also reported on widespread trafficker abuses against sub-Saharan Africans in Egypt’s Sinai Desert, against which the Egyptian authorities have consistently failed to take effective action. Over the past few years, hundreds and possibly thousands of sub-Saharan Africans – most from Eritrea and Sudan – have been held and tortured for months in Sinai before crossing into Israel to claim asylum.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on Egypt to locate and prosecute traffickers abusing asylum seekers, and to allow UNHCR access to asylum seekers detained by Egyptian authorities in Sinai.
Refugee rights groups have also documented dozens of cases in 2012 in which traffickers have kidnapped people from or near refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan and transported them against their will into the Sinai.
Recent medical examinations by Israeli doctors and interviews with some asylum seekers whom Israel allowed to cross the border for medical treatment because of their apparent poor health also provide evidence that Bedouin traffickers continue to torture and rape sub-Saharan Africans in Sinai. One man said traffickers had detained him for three months and forced him to work in a detention camp, where he heard women being tortured and saw other Africans held for ransom die while in captivity. His brother borrowed money and paid US$38,000 to secure his release.
The three rights groups said that when Israel returned asylum seekers to the Sinai without considering their cases, it was putting them at risk that Egypt would ignore their refugee claims, that it would forcibly return them to Eritrea, and that they would be abused by traffickers in the Sinai against whom the Egyptian authorities have been unable or unwilling to provide protection.
“Based on arguments that are wrong in law and on the facts, Israel is forcibly turning back people who have fled persecution at home, have faced severe abuse by traffickers in Sinai, and who then risk detention in Sinai with no access to asylum,” Simpson said. “There is simply no loophole justifying Israel’s denial of protection to asylum seekers by rejecting them at the border without fully considering their individual cases. To accept such a claim would be to accept the evisceration of refugee protection.”