JERUSALEM — In an acceleration of its controversial crackdown on African asylum seekers, Israel has begun sending Eritrean refugees back to their restive homeland, where they face uncertain and potentially perilous futures.
The first planeload of 14 Eritreans left Israel over the weekend and the government is expected to repatriate about 200 more in the coming days, according to refugee-rights groups.
After receiving a flood of about 60,000 African refugees over the last seven years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared the influx a threat to the country’s security and Jewish character.
A year ago, his government launched an aggressive, multi-pronged approach to stemming the tide of migrants. Critics call his policies heartless and a violation of international refugee conventions, but Netanyahu boasts that Israel is the only Western nation to have effectively halted the problem of illegal immigration.
Thanks to a nearly completed fence along the Egyptian border, where most of the African asylum seekers cross, and a law allowing police to imprison undocumented migrants for up to three years, the number of Africans crossing the border in the first six months of 2013 was just 34, compared with 9,570 in 2012.
“This was an extraordinary achievement for the state of Israel because every Western country, to some extent, has failed to do this,” the prime minister said Sunday. “Now we are focusing on the issue of repatriating the illegal migrants who are already [here].... We are acting very responsibly and determinedly. We started to move them out.”
Interior Ministry officials would not comment directly on the latest Eritrean deportations, but issued a statement saying that all such returns are voluntary.
But civil rights groups and United Nations agencies have criticized Israel’s policies, saying the government has failed to live up to international obligations to conduct individual reviews to determine which asylum seekers are entitled to legal protections as refugees. Up until recently, Israel afforded Eritreans and Sudanese blanket protection against deportation.
On Monday, refugee groups denounced the government’s removal of the Eritreans, saying the returnees — all of whom were being held in the Saharonim detention facility in the Negev desert — did not have proper legal representation.
They questioned whether the returns were voluntary, saying they received phone calls from panicked Eritreans inside the prison who said they were being threatened and pressured to sign consent forms.
“Most of these people were detained for a year with no hope for the future,” said Reut Michaeli, executive director of the Tel Aviv-based Hotline for Migrant Workers. “They were told they would never be allowed to settle in Israel and would be held in prison for three years. So they gave up. Some said they’d rather die in Eritrea than stay in prison in Israel.”
Michaeli said there were no assurances that the returning Eritreans would be protected upon their return home and that the Eritrean government has a track record of mistreating citizens who attempt to flee.
“It’s a harsh regime that violates human rights,” she said. “Many people who go back are detained, disappear or are tortured.”
Eritrea is one of Africa’s poorest nations, suffering from chronic food shortages and an authoritarian government that drafts citizens into national service that sometimes lasts for decades.
Israel also ejected several hundred South Sudanese last year after declaring that they no longer qualified for protection in Israel after the new African nation’s split from Sudan.
And last month, the government revealed that it was negotiating to pay an unidentified African nation to absorb several thousand of its Eritrean and Sudanese refugees, including some from the war-torn Darfur region of Sudan.
Refugee-rights activists dismissed the idea, saying it would not pass muster in Israel’s Supreme Court.
“This entire move is illegal,” said Orit Marom, a leader at Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel. She said the plan appeared to be an attempt to deflect attention away from the detention of asylum seekers and migrants, a practice her group is challenging in court.
“This simply deflects the discussion from the real issue at hand and the reason we petitioned the Supreme Court: the fact that there are over 2,000 adults and children being held in prison without trial,” Marom said.
News assistant Batsheva Sobelman in The Times’ Jerusalem bureau contributed to this report