Seven Eritreans who have had their asylum petitions rejected have been jailed indefinitely by Israel after refusing deportation to Rwanda.
The men are the first to be detained since the Israeli authorities announced a initiative last November to make thousands of African migrants and asylum seekers choose between deportation to a third country or face an unspecified amount of jail time.
“This is the first step in a what is a globally unprecedented deportation operation, a move tainted by racism and complete disregard for the life and dignity of asylum seekers,” Israeli human rights groups said in a joint statement on Wednesday.
According to the UN refugee agency, there are 27,000 Eritrean and 7,700 Sudanese asylum seekers currently in Israel.
Only 10 Eritreans and one Sudanese person have been granted asylum, Haaretz reports.
Most asylum seekers travel overland to Israel via the border with Egypt and claim they cannot return because of the threat of persecution by their home countries’ authoritarian governments.
At least two of the men detained this week at Saharonim prison on the Israeli-Egyptian border are torture survivors, the rights groups said.
After losing a deportation hearing, they were taken straight to the prison.
Under the new rules around 600 deportation notices have been given to people who did not file asylum requests by the end of 2017 so far, Israeli media says.
Targeted asylum seekers are given an interview and one month in which to decide whether to leave Israel voluntarily. If they refuse, they are given a hearing in which a population authority official can decide whether to jail them or not.
Women, children, fathers of minor children and victims of slavery or human trafficking are not being targeted for deportation.
It is reported that the third countries the asylum seekers are being deported to are Rwanda and Uganda, although both deny they have struck any kind of deal with the Israeli government.
Travel documents and plane fare is provided by Israel and deportees are given $3,500 (£2,510) cash to help them set up on arrival.
Those who have arrived in Rwanda report having their documents confiscated on arrival and having basic rights denied, many ending up on the streets.
UNHCR said in a recent report that only nine asylum seekers deported to Rwanda have actually stayed there.
After the news broke that the seven men had been detained hundreds of asylum seekers at the nearby Holot detention centre began a hunger strike in protest.
“We don’t want to eat at all – not tomorrow, not the next day – because they’ve taken these people to jail,” Abdat, an Eritrean who has been held at Holot for 10 months, told Haaretz.
“Not one person is eating. They tell us, ‘It’s a pity to throw the food away.’ We say lives are also being thrown away.”
The Israeli refugee rights group Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, as well as UNHCR, asked the interior ministry to reconsider the plans last month.
Israel's prison service has also criticised the plans, saying it cannot house people indefinitely.
The Israeli authorities did not immediately respond to The Independent’s request for comment.
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