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UN refugee agency warns Israel that expelling Eritreans en masse is unlawful

GENEVA, Switzerland — The UN urged Israel Tuesday to refrain from mass deportations of Eritreans following weekend clashes involving asylum seekers, warning it would “contravene international law” and could have dire human consequences.

The United Nations refugee agency said it was “deeply concerned” by the clashes that erupted on Saturday when a demonstration against an Eritrean government event turned violent, injuring at least 170 people.

The rioting began when hundreds of anti-government Eritreans came to prevent the event from taking place in Tel Aviv. Police responded with live fire to the skirmishes between migrant supporters and opponents of Eritrea’s government, leaving dozens hospitalized. Several officers were also hospitalized with wounds sustained in the incident.

“UNHCR calls for calm and restraint, and on all parties to refrain from taking any steps that could aggravate the situation further,” William Spindler told reporters in Geneva.

While stressing that it was “important to establish accountability” for the events, he warned Israel against taking broad measures against Eritreans in the country.

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“Any decision impacting all Eritrean asylum-seekers, or instances of refoulement would contravene international law,” he said.

Anti-Eritrean government activists, left, clash with supporters of the Eritrean government, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sept. 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Collective punishment is banned under international law, as is refoulment, or returning someone to a country where they could face torture, cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.

Stressing that the situation in Eritrea, considered one of the world’s most authoritarian states, “remains unchanged,” Spindler warned that sending people back there “could result in dramatic human consequences.”

He insisted that “the vast majority of asylum-seekers living in Israel are peaceful and law-abiding.”

“The incidents on September 2 are deeply regrettable, and do not reflect the behavior of the broader Eritrean community in Israel.”

According to June statistics, there are 17,850 Eritrean asylum seekers in Israel.

UNHCR said more than 170 asylum-seekers and dozens of police officers were injured in Saturday’s clashes, which broke out amid a demonstration against an official Eritrean government event marking the 30th anniversary of autocratic President Isaias Afwerki’s rise to power. Opponents of the regime, decked in blue, arrived on the scene to demonstrate against supporters, who wore red. The rallies soon devolved into violence that lasted for several hours.

Eritrean asylum seekers who oppose the regime in Eritrea and pro-regime activists clash with police officers in south Tel Aviv, September 2, 2023. (Omer Fichman/Flash90)

The UN rights office meanwhile decried the use of force by law enforcement.

“We understand that hospitals are reporting that there are people who suffered gunshot wounds… so live ammunition was used,” rights office spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani told reporters.

“We are alarmed at the high number of injuries and we insist that it is crucial that investigations take place, and that hate speech is avoided, including by the authorities,” she said, also demanding that “the principle of non-refundable is respected fully.”

Migrants and asylum-seekers have been met with antipathy by successive Israeli governments, and face an uncertain future as the state has granted refugee status only in a minuscule number of cases and has engaged in ongoing efforts to make life difficult for them or to deport them outright.

The issue is often cited by supporters of the government’s judicial overhaul as an example of court overreach in defiance of public will, while opponents of the overhaul cite the same decisions as proving the court’s key role in protecting human rights.

The court in the past blocked jailing migrants for extended periods of time without trial and also struck down a move to force them to deposit 20 percent of their work salary in a fund, with the money released only upon their departure from the country.

Some 30,000 migrants, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, are thought to be in the country, with many of them contending they are refugees from war and oppression. Most African migrants arrived in Israel through Egypt in 2007-2012, before Israel built a barrier along the desert border. Few migrants have arrived since that time.