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Israeli Court: Flight from Eritrean army is basis for refugee status

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Sudanese and Eritrean immigrants protesting

Sudanese and Eritrean immigrants protest their treatment in front of the Knesset. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

A special appeals court for refugee issues has said that flight from the Eritrean army can serve as a basis for being granted refugee status, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants announced on Thursday.

Filed by the Tel Aviv University Clinic for Refugee Rights, the case could pressure the state to grant refugee status to a larger number of Eritreans just as it has launched a campaign to deport African migrants to Rwanda.  

The court decision was a clear moral victory for African migrants, but even if some more refugee applications are granted, it is unclear how much it would change the broader picture on the ground.

Already in September 2016, a special appeals court had ruled that the state must reconsider across the board whether Eritreans who came to Israel illegally should get refugee status.

Until now, the Interior Ministry has nearly universally rejected applications by Eritreans for refugee status on the grounds that fleeing military service, the reason many of them give for leaving Eritrea, for Israel, is not included in the definition of being “persecuted,” which would obligate Israel to give them refugee status.

Under the Refugee Convention, which Israel is a party to, persons who cannot return to their country of origin because of threat of persecution must be granted refugee status.

The court had said back in September 2016 that the state could not use such a sweeping argument to dismiss refugee applications and certainly not on the basis of concerns that too many Eritreans getting refugee status at the same time would threaten the state’s Jewish character or similar considerations.

Citing UN and other reports, the approximately 30,000 Eritrean migrants who came to Israel illegally, represented by the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, say that service in the Eritrean army for many is a sentence to torture or death in a country where the rule of law is weak and the army is used to achieve many oppressive goals.

The state, in contrast, has cited British and Danish government reports that state that fleeing the Eritrean army is not a basis to receive refugee status, but that and other arguments were unsuccessful in court.

But the state did not make any major change after the September 2016 decision, and even if the current decision holds, the government could try to raise other grounds for rejecting Eritrean migrants or for rejecting specific individuals.

After striking several prior state policies as unconstitutional, the High Court of Justice has already nominally endorsed the state’s current policy of giving migrants a “choice” of either being deported to Rwanda or detained.

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