Hrity, a migrant from Eritrea, holds her hands as she poses for a photograph in the central city of Lod, near Tel Aviv
Hrity, a migrant from Eritrea, holds her hands as she poses for a photograph in the central city of Lod, near Tel Aviv Reuters

Israel has been accused of using unlawful detention and restrictive asylum policies to try to pressure 51,000 Eritrean and Sudanese migrants into leaving the country.

A fresh report by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) concluded that the Israeli government created "convoluted legal rules" to get around international and domestic law about protection of refugees and used the insecure legal status of Eritrean and Sudanese migrants to detain them indefinitely.

The asylum-seekers find themselves in a coercive position with the choice of "living in fear of spending the rest of their days locked up in desert detention centres" or risking life-threatening abuse back home.

"Destroying people's hope of finding protection by forcing them into a corner and then claiming they are voluntarily leaving Israel is transparently abusive," Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at HRW and author of the 83-page report, said.

Over the past years, Israeli authorities pursued policies to get rid of the "infiltrators" often branded as a "threat", according to HRW. That is echoed in the words of former interior minister Eli Yishai who said that Israel should "lock them [refugees] up to make their lives miserable" since it cannot deport Eritreans and Sudanese to their home countries.

According to HRW, African asylum-seekers who agree to return to their own countries under threat of indefinite detention "should be considered victims of refoulement". Under international law, refoulement is the act of coercing people back to their place of origin where they face persecution, torture or degrading treatment on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion.

New Israeli legislation stipulates that those caught entering the country illegally could be jailed for up to a year, after which they are moved to a new detention facility.

Previous legislation, the Infiltration Law, allowed Israel to jail migrants for three years, pending a review of their refugee status, and set a 90-day deadline for detainees to be released.

It was overturned by the high court and replaced by a law that allows open-ended detention of migrants in Holot detention centre, in the middle of the Negev desert, that can hold hundreds of people indefinitely.

A total of 7,000 Sudanese and Eritrean refugees have returned to their home countries. Sudanese face punishments of up to ten years in prison for visiting Israel, which is illegal under domestic laws.

Israel also refuses to accept Eritrea's indefinite military service as a reason to ask for asylum, a reason that is accepted by other countries. In Eritrea, compulsory national service for adult men and women – which should be limited to 18 months – is prolonged indefinitely and keeps most young Eritreans "in perpetual bondage", according to Human Rights Watch.

Data published by the Population, Immigration and Border Authority showed that only four applicants were granted refugee status in Israel in 2013, out of 2,593 applicants.