Myths, facts and suggestions: Asylum seekers in Israel

‘Asylum seekers’ are often confused with ‘migrant workers’ in Israel. Here is an info-sheet written by two experts in the field that explains the facts about the new faces in Israeli society, and suggests how the country should cope.

By Yonatan Berman and Oded Feller

‘They’re not refugees, they’re migrant workers’

More than 60 percent of the asylum seekers in Israel are Eritrean, and more than 25 percent are Sudanese – together, that’s 85 percent of the asylum seekers in the country. Israel has not examined the asylum requests of any Eritreans and Sudanese nationals.

But Israel does not deport Eritrean and Sudanese nationals. Indeed, in the absence of diplomatic ties, it would be difficult to deport someone to Sudan. But Israel enjoys full ties with Eritrea, such that there is no logistical barrier to the deportation of all Eritreans (who constitute the vast majority of asylum seekers in Israel). If they are all migrant workers, as various officials claim, why not deport them? The answer is simple: their lives in the country of origin are at risk. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon admitted as much in a recent Knesset hearing, explaining why returning Eritreans to their country is not on the agenda: “Eritrea has a regime described by the entire international community as a regime that does not protect human rights, and someone returning there is at risk – including risk of death.” Israel thus meets its commitment to the Refugee Convention to refrain from returning refugees to a place where their lives would be in danger. It is thus also abiding by UNHCR guidelines prohibiting the return of Eritrean asylum seekers.

The rate of recognition in the world for Eritrean asylum seekers is 84 percent. The global rate of recognition for Sudanese asylum seekers is 64 percent.

Is it possible that the liars are only coming to Israel?

They themselves say that they are coming to work”

The only question that asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan are asked by the Population Authority upon arrival to Israel is, “Why did you come?” Many answer that they came to work. However, that is not the method by which asylum applications are verified. The relevant question would be , “Why did you leave your country, and what will happen to you if you return?” If those questions were asked, many would be found eligible for refugee status.

Asylum seekers come from poor countries. Even if their motivation to come to Israel stems from this fact, and from the desire to improve their lives, this doesn’t mean that they are not refugees and not eligible for international protection.

Israel isn’t their first country of asylum. They should stay in Egypt”

International law does not require asylum seekers to ask for refugee status in the first country to which they flee. If this was the rule, third world countries– which already receive the majority of the world’s refugees – would be the only legitimate destinations. Countries are permitted to sign burden-sharing agreements regarding the intake of refugees, and to return refugees to countries of asylum where they had already resided. This is only legitimate if the receiving country is a safe country in which refugees enjoy protection.

Israel has no such agreement with Egypt, and Egypt isn’t a safe country and does not have asylum procedures; it does not enable free access to UNCHR and the International Committee of the Red Cross; it arrests asylum seekers; it deports asylum seekers to their countries of origin; it does not allow asylum seekers to work to support themselves; it does not give their children access to education.

The residents of South Tel Aviv and Eilat are suffering”

That’s true. But they are not the only ones. Asylum seekers also live in Ashdod, Jerusalem, Arad and elsewhere.

Asylum seekers live in Israel with deportation orders – which cannot be implemented – hanging over their heads. Their employment in Israel is predicated on the government’s agreement to refrain from enforcing an employment ban against their employers. They are not eligible for any form of aid. Their futures are obscured by fog. Government policies that prevent asylum seekers from reasonable work conditions – along with access to housing, health services, welfare and education – leave them impoverished.

As a result, high concentrations of asylum seekers have cropped up in poor areas, where some can afford shelter. The crowding contributes to already difficultl conditions, resulting in what has become an unbearable situation.

Asylum seekers do not choose to live in these conditions. Most of them are productive people. Many are educated. Government intervention to ensure their rights and assist them in housing, work, health, welfare and education would help rescue them from poverty and decrease the burden on poor areas. If the massive funds the government spends on the unnecessary detention of asylum seekers were diverted to help improve the infrastructure in the areas in which they live, the resident would no doubt greatly benefit as well.

Israel doesn’t need to help all the poor people in the world”

That’s true, but Israel does need to do its part in sharing the burden. In Israel, there are more than 45,000 asylum seekers. Most Western countries today deal with large numbers – but they’re not alone. States that border countries from which refugees flee are the ones who carry the heaviest burden, and they are in far worse economic shape than Israel. Many Sudanese asylum seekers are in Chad. Many Eritrean asylum seekers are in Ethiopia. Even Israel’s neighbors – Jordan and Syria – have received hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees in recent years. Israel is no different from other states. It is a strong country with strong institutions, and can handle the numbers of asylum seekers arriving.

There is a limit to the number of refugees you can take”

The Refugee Convention does not enable countries to set quotas of refugees. No quota can supersede the prohibition against returning people to where their lives would be at risk.

We’ll build a fence to prevent their entry”

Building a fence is allowed, but it won’t do away with Israel’s obligation to receive those whose lives are in danger.

We’ll build a huge prison, and when it’s established we won’t let them work”

The world’s largest prison for immigrants, slated for construction in the Negev, will hold between 10 and 15 thousand people. It will be an oppressive refugee camp, and won’t solve anything. There are already more than 45,000 refugees in Israel, and by the time it is established, there are likely to be more. The prison will quickly be filled to capacity. If the many asylum seekers who remain outside its walls cannot work, they’ll starve. Moreover, the detainees will ultimately be released, in order to make room for new arrivals. Except for abusing asylum seekers and their children, nothing will be achieved. Estimates show that Israel will spend hundreds of millions of shekels on the facility, and more than a billion a year to maintain it – all for nothing.

So what do you suggest?”

Instead of spending massive amounts on a detention facility, the government should invest in a mechanism for examining the asylum claims of Eritreans and Sudanese nationals, in order to protect the rights of those eligible for asylum and improve the infrastructure of impoverished areas. Whoever is eligible for protection will be recognized as a refugee. Whoever isn’t will be deported.

The situation in South Sudan has very slowly improved (though it appears to be deteriorating again), and some of its citizens have returned there. Hopefully, the situation in Eritrea and Sudan will similarly improve in coming years, enabling their citizens to return home. Israel should use its diplomatic channels to work toward this goal.

However, in the meanwhile, Israel should accept, like many other Western states, that it must appropriately deal with large numbers of asylum seekers. It must accept the reality that many of them will not be leaving Israel anytime soon.

Yonatan Berman is the director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the Academic Center of Law and Business. Attorney Oded Feller is director of the Immigration and Residency Project at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. This post originally appeared in Hebrew on their blog, Laissez Passer.

This post was translated by Noa Yachot