World -- July 15, 2013 at 5:44 PM ET
Israel Sends 14 Eritreans Back to Their Homeland
There are tens of thousands of Eritrean migrants living in Israel. They are rarely granted work permits and now, due to a year-old immigration law, every migrant who crosses the border is imprisoned for a minimum of three years. Some may be held indefinitely. Photo By Eyal Benyaish
Editor's Note: We have updated original story to include a statement from Israeli Embassy spokesman.
The Israeli government released 14 Eritreans from a detention facility in southern Israel and flew them back to Eritrea, via Turkey, according to rights groups in Israel.
The 14 Eritreans left the country voluntarily, after receiving $1,500 and signing consent forms, said Sigal Rozen of Israel's Hotline for Migrant Workers, an NGO that supports the African migrants staying in Israel.
"These people have been detained for more than a year," said Rozen. "Every day during that time, immigration officers come to them and say that the only way out of prison is for them to go back to their own country."
Since 2006, some 60,000 refugees, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, have come to Israel. About 2,000 are currently being held in Saharonim detention facility. Last month, PBS NewsHour published an in-depth report about how and why these migrants came to Israel, as well as some of the troubling conditions they found upon arrival.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office directed queries about the Eritreans to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, which provided a statement which read in part, "Nobody forced (the Eritreans) to board an airplane. Each person made a personal decision to return home, just as those Eritreans who choose to remain in Israel decided not to return at this point."
On Sunday, Netanyahu released a statement on the matter, saying that his administration had "blocked the phenomenon of illegal migration" and is now "focusing on the issue of repatriating the illegal migrants who are already (here). We are doing so while respecting all legal and international norms; we are acting very responsibly and very determinedly."
Earlier this year, the Israeli government completed a 144-mile fence along the country's southern border, where many African migrants previously gained entry into Israel.
The U.N. has criticized the return policy. William Tall, the representative in Israel for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees told the news website Haaretz that prisoners his office interviewed in Saharonim said that the Israeli government had given them a choice: three more years in the detention facility or a one-way ticket home.
"Agreement to return to Eritrea under an ultimatum of jail ... can't be considered voluntary by any criterion. It is explicitly not voluntary return," Tall told the daily.