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30 november 2009

UN slams Israel's 'hot return' of asylum seekers

The Supreme Court is currently discussing a case that concerns Israel's practice of immediately returning asylum seekers who cross from Egypt into Israel back across the border.

It appears that in so doing, Israel may be violating international law, according to a position paper submitted to the court by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.

The lawsuit in question was originally filed in 2007 by several human rights organizations represented by the Hotline for Migrant Workers and the refugee rights project of Tel Aviv University.

The immediate or "hot return" policy, as it is called, allows Israel Defense Force soldiers to return infiltrators to a neighboring country if 24 hours have not elapsed since their entry, and as long as they have not gone further than 50 kilometers from the Israeli border.

The UN High Commission's position in the case is that, due to the conditions in Egypt, and until there a formal agreement that is honored in full between Egypt and Israel, which provides sufficient assurances to asylum seekers who are sent back over the border - the State of Israel is not fulfilling its obligations according to international law, by using the "hot" or "coordinated return" practice.

In the first nine months of this year, according to data presented by the state at the hearings, and pursuant to its return policy, Israel has dispatched 217 people across the border.

Precise figures for last year were not provided, but organizations dealing with the problem estimate that several dozens and perhaps as many as several hundred people were returned to Egypt.

Jail in Egypt

The UN High Commissioner's document gives some indication of what such people who are returned to Egypt are forced to undergo: Persons caught trying to cross the border are routinely sentenced to up to a year in jail, in addition to fines.

Furthermore, in most cases, they are also are denied access to procedures through which they could obtain refugee status, via the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office in Cairo.

Since the beginning of 2008 - other than in the case of a group of 187 people held in the Egyptian town of Aswan - the UN High Commission has been unable to interview detainees who unsuccessfully tried to cross over and stay in Israel, making it impossible to determine what international regulations have been applied in their cases.

The UN position paper also mentions numerous reports of refugees or asylum seekers who will be in grave danger if they are forcibly returned to their native lands, whether directly or indirectly: If the person in question risks persecution or other dangers if he goes back to his homeland - this is a violation of international law.

There are also reports of live ammunition being used against people trying to cross the border, sometimes with fatal consequences.

"The unequivocal position of the UN High Commission for Refugees," said attorney Yonatan Berman of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, "refutes all of the state's arguments, to the effect that the lives of those expelled to Egypt are not in danger. Despite that clear position, the state insists on relating with frightening indifference to the fate of hundreds of asylum seekers returned to Egypt, and from there to their countries of origin, where death or torture [may] await them.

"We are convinced that, in light of the position of the High Commission, the same institutional entity upon which the state has been careful to base its opinions during the course of the proceedings, the court will nullify the illegal procedure the state is implementing on the border."


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