An Eritrean man who sought asylum in Israel but voluntarily left the country after he agreed to be deported to Uganda, is now back in Eritrea where he likely faces severe prosecution and possible death as an army deserter.
Tesfamihret Habtemariam, 28, was denied entry to Uganda last Thursday and put on a flight to Egypt, where he had connected on his way from Israel. He spent six days detained in an enclosed room at Cairo airport, while authorities and human rights groups tried to persuade him to fly back to Israel.
But having spent the last few months in an Israeli prison as an illegal immigrant, with the likelihood of three more years incarcerated on return, Mr Habtemariam decided to fly home. “It is my choice. For me it is better,” he said through tears on the phone, hours before his departure.
Israel has around 60,000 immigrants from Africa, the majority Eritrean, most of who entered the country illegally over the last decade. But its controversial attempts to deport them have sparked controversy, for methods include imprisonment, detention centres and so-called voluntary repatriations, where the choice is to leave the country or remain in prison for three years under legislation called ‘Infiltrators Law.’
Mr Habtemariam spent years living in Israel but was arrested several months ago, put in prison, and “tricked” into signing up for voluntary repatriation to Uganda, says human rights activist and journalist Meron Estefanos.
“The government bought him the ticket to fly to Uganda. But Israel has no deal with Uganda. They’re just dumping people in Uganda and hoping somebody will take him,” she said.
While at Cairo airport Mr Habtemariam was made to sleep on the floor, given a bread and rice once a day and his only source of recreation was a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. Over the phone he assessed his hopeless situation. “I don’t have a choice. I don’t want to go home to Eritrea…. I don’t want to go to Israel.”
Despite the efforts of the UN in Israel to persuade him otherwise, and despite facing possible death in Eritrea, Mr Habtemariam decided to fly home on Wednesday evening.
“He knows that he will be prosecuted but he says that being prosecuted in Eritrea is better than being imprisoned in Israel,” said Ms Estefanos, who first alerted the Israeli press last weekend.
Mr Habtemariam’s private lawyer, Lior Peretz, confirmed that his client would almost certainly face three years in jail should he return, but said it was a better option that Eritrea where "the chance is they will kill him. That is what happens to men who run away from Eritrea and come back later."
Eritrea remains one of the most repressive countries in the world and the UN estimates that hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have fled in recent years. On Tuesday, Israel’s attorney general Yehuda Weinstein halted the deportation of Eritrean migrants “to prevent, God forbid, such incidents from occurring again.”