Three Steps Back for Israel's Asylum Policy

A few weeks ago, Israel began sending letters to thousands of asylum seekers informing them of their imminent deportation to an unnamed African country. If they resist deportation and refuse to “voluntarily” leave Israel, the letter claims, they will be sent to jail within 30 days. This is an unconscionable violation of the rights of asylum seekers.  

The unexpected notice comes in the wake of a recent report by the UK Home Office, which released guidance for officers deciding whether to grant asylum protection to Eritreans who had fled forced conscription or evaded military service. The report was based primarily on the faulty conclusions drawn by the Danish government after a “fact-finding” mission in 2014. The Danish report has been roundly criticized by Danish organizations and international actors including the UN Refugee Agency, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others, and its veracity has since been called into question by the Danish government itself. 

To the extent the UK report could now be used to reject valid asylum claims is dangerous. This risk is compounded by the fact that Israel may use both reports to further justify their longstanding record of denying all Eritrean asylum claims – except three – in its history.

In the fall of 2013, I spent time in Israel meeting with traumatized asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan who were attempting to secure protection and NGOs who were supporting their rights. I also met with government officials who were implementing laws that were in violation of the UN Refugee Convention. These laws were later found to be in violation of Israel’s Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom twice by the High Court of Justice. 

Shortly after the release of Refugees International’s report, there was reason to feel a small amount of hope: the High Court declared the indefinite detention of asylum seekers unconstitutional, the government confirmed that asylum seekers and their employers would not be penalized for their employment, and the Ministry of Interior finally began permitting asylum seekers to file applications for refugee protection. While each of these improvements may have constituted one step forward for asylum seekers, now Israel has taken at least three steps back.

One step back: Globally, the vast majority of Eritreans and Sudanese are recognized as refugees, but since it started adjudicating thousands of their claims in late 2013, Israel has granted refugee status to only three Eritreans, and has not granted even one request for protection made by a Sudanese person.  

Two steps back: If an asylum seeker from Eritrea or Sudan reaches Israel after a long and difficult journey, they are issued temporary protection. Israel admits that they cannot return to their countries of origin without exposure to a great risk of torture or other serious human rights abuses. This “visa” is not considered evidence of legal residence but serves as protection against deportation. It must be renewed every four to eight weeks, and if an asylum seeker does not have a valid visa, she may be jailed for up to 120 days and then transferred to a detention center specifically created for asylum seekers to serve up to 600 days. 

Last summer, the Ministry of Interior closed 20 out of 24 visa renewal offices and severely limited the amount of hours the remaining offices would operate. Not surprisingly, these restrictions resulted in days-long waits outside the office and some asylum seekers lost their jobs. Immigration Authority officers began requiring pay-slips and lease agreements to renew visas, but many asylum seekers are forced to work informally, are paid in cash, and live with many others in apartments, so their names are not on lease agreements. The living and employment conditions of asylum seekers in Israel are well-known, but the absence of the records requested meant that asylum seekers would not receive new visas. In August, the government started arresting and jailing asylum seekers who did not have valid visas.  

Three steps back: Two weeks ago, the Ministry of Interior began summoning asylum seekers to hearings at a detention center and then presenting them with a letter that encouraged their “voluntary” departure to an unidentified African country. According to the letter received by one asylum seeker, which RI was able to review, Eritreans and Sudanese who have already departed Israel for these African countries are “very happy.” Subsequently, Rwanda admitted that it had entered into an agreement with Israel, but as in the past, Uganda has not concurred, but it continues to receive dozens of asylum seekers. 

The living and employment conditions of asylum seekers in Israel are well-known, but the absence of the records requested meant that asylum seekers would not receive new visas. In August, the government started arresting and jailing asylum seekers who did not have valid visas.

As a general principle, asylum seekers should be processed in the state where they request protection. Relocation should not be used to circumvent responsibilities freely taken up through ratification of the UN Refugee Convention. UN guidelines state that when refugee rights are at stake, a third country relocation is not considered voluntary unless certain safeguards are in place. Before a transfer, Israel is responsible for ensuring that relocated asylum seekers will have access to adequate health care, education, and freedom of movement, and assure that they won’t be subject to arbitrary detention or other violations of international law. 

Uganda is host to 536,000 refugees and is expected to take in another 130,000 in 2015. In the last 15 months, 125,000 refugees have arrived from South Sudan. Uganda does not permit refugees to access citizenship or permanent residency. According to UNHCR, primary needs for refugees include access to transparent international protection, basic shelter, adequate health care, and nutrition assistance.

There are already almost 74,000 refugees in Rwanda and all are helped by the UN Refugee Agency. Because conditions are not safe for many refugees there, resettlement to a third country such as the US is being pursued aggressively, and 2,400 refugees are expected to depart Rwanda this year. In 2015, the UN Refugee Agency appealed for $43.2 million to assist in its efforts to help refugees in Uganda, but has received only $2.6 million thus far. 

Rather than highlight the suitability of relocation to an African country, conditions in Uganda and Rwanda only serve to highlight how ill-equipped they would be to absorb more refugees. Given the immeasurably better conditions they could experience in Israel and the fact that asylum-seekers make up only 0.5% of its population, it would be absurd for Israel to force them to Uganda and Rwanda. 

Israel is not exceptional in its response to the arrival of asylum seekers. Many countries struggle to balance their rights with the internal politics and prejudices that make recognizing asylum seekers so difficult. This is not an excuse, however, for overlooking the responsibility to protect persecuted people. Rather than viewing successful deterrence as an approach better suited to Israel than fair asylum practices, the government should take one step forward and start recognizing their rights.

Photo: African migrants protest against Israel's detention policy toward them. Credit: REUTERS