Thursday, January 9, 2014

Information Regarding the Refugee Situation in Israel: Staying Informed and Understanding the Situation

Many people have been asking questions and wanting more information on the Refugee Situation here in Israel at the moment.  We've put together an information leaflet in order that people can refer to it and find more information. 
Please share with anyone who has questions and needs more information.


Shallya and Hailey

Who are the Israeli Asylum Seekers?

Asylum seekers are African refugees fleeing from persecution mainly from Eritrea or Sudan, and asking for asylum in Israel.  They have found physical safety in Israel.

Why are the people fleeing Eritrea?

Eritrea is a dictatorship and is known to be one of the most oppressive regimes in the world today. The government destroyed the free press in 2001 and it controls all TV, radio and newspapers. All government opposition is suppressed. Internet access is limited and internet users are closely monitored. There are four recognized religions in Eritrea: Sunni Islam, the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and Evangelical (Lutheran) Church of Eritrea. An adherent of any other religion is subject to arrest, can have their businesses confiscated, and faces threats and imprisonment. Since 2002 Eritrea uses mandatory "National Service" as a tool of oppression. Citizens are conscripted for most of their working life, forced to work 10-12 hours a day and paid low wages: an amount which is difficult to survive on.  Females face a high level of sexual abuse. Additionally, Eritrea commonly uses severe forms of punishment including torture. Due to severe economic problems exacerbated by droughts, there have been reports of food shortages yet these claims were denied by the government. Humanitarian organizations are not allowed into Eritrea although they do receive certain funding from UN run projects.1

Why are people fleeing Sudan?

Sudan, ruled by the National Congress Party (NCP) is fraught with a number of different conflicts. Since South Sudan's independence in July 2011, the two countries have been in conflict over the border, oil production and debt. Since the beginning of 2012 there have been cross-border attacks and armed clashes leaving many people displaced. There is also fighting between government forces and rebels in the Southern Kordofan and the Blue Nile States, forcing many people to flee. Although an agreement was signed in the Darfur region in 2011 between Sudan and a Darfur rebel group, security in the region still remains problematic. Not all rebel groups were agreed to the agreement and so fighting in the region continues. The government continues to deny United Nations-Afican Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) access to many parts of Darfur. UNDAMID reports on arbitrary arrest and detentions. The ongoing conflict has disrupted the supply of humanitarian assistance, exacerbating the flow of refugees. Despite International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrants which were issued in 2005, against six individuals (including President Omar al-Bashir) Sudan has not cooperated and denies all responsibility. Student led peaceful protests which were conducted in various towns in late 2011 and 2012 were met with severe violence, mass arrest, detainments and torture. People who are perceived to be a threat to the government are arrested and face harsh treatment.  Opposition to the government has been banned and free press is heavily censored.2

Citizens of Sudan and Eritrea may have fled for a variety of different reasons. They generally arrive in Israel via Egypt having crossed the Sinai Peninsula, sometimes being shot at by Egyptian soldiers, or after being released from kidnappers in the Sinai. (where their families were forced to pay a ransom and they were held against their will) They then arrive in the first safe country: Israel.

Does Israel have an obligation to help these Asylum seekers?

In 1951, Israel signed and ratified the UN refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol (together the "Convention") Under this Convention, we obligated ourselves to accept and assess the claims of refugees asking for asylum.  As a nation of refugees, emerging from the consequences of extreme antisemitism, this was an important moment that defined what kind of state we were to be: a beacon of social justice that champions freedom, equality and human rights.

Who is a refugee under the convention?

According the Refugee convention, a refugee is someone who  "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."3

What right are refugees entitled to and do they have obligations?

Among the rights enshrined in the Convention is the right of non-refoulment, (Article 33), according to this a person should not be sent back to a place where he faces fear to his life or freedom, the right not to punished for illegal entry in to country (Articles 31), the right to work (Article 17-19). A refugee is also obligated to abide by the laws of the host country.

Why should we grant asylum if they already passed through Egypt, why can't Egypt be responsible, not us?

According to the Convention the first safe country is responsible for the asylum seekers. Egypt is not considered 'safe' for asylum seekers.

Why doesn't American, Canada or wealthy western country take them?

As stated above, the convention says that the first safe country that the asylum seeker arrives at, is the one which has the responsibility to assess their claims. As Israel is considered "Safe'' other countries are not willing to take/resettle our asylum seekers.

How do we know who is a refugee and who isn't?

We don't. Netanyahu and Gideon Saar have been telling the public they know that they are migrant workers but they have no data or facts to back their statements.  According to the Convention, Refugee Status Determination ("RSD") is the process that will determine their status.  The process should ideally be individual in nature, procedures should be fair and efficient and asylum seekers should be given the right to appeal. In Israel, the RSD process is not transparent, very few claims have been examined and very few answers have been given. Until now Sudanese and Eritreans have been given "Group Protection", according to which they would not be sent out of Israel, but they are also not recognized as refugees.

Until a few years ago, the UN in Israel had the responsibility to check the appeals from the asylum seekers.  However, Israel asked the UN to step aside to begin the process of RSD themselves.  However, since the process was switched from the UN to Israel, very few cases have been checked and none have been answered.

We need to demand from our government to begin checking their claims so we can see who is a migrant worker and who is a refuge.

What percentage of Asylum claims are recognized in other countries?

According to HIAS, in other countries 80% of Eritreans have been confirmed refugees, and 35% of Sudanese

But if we give them refugee status, they'll stay in Israel. We are a small Jewish country, how can we integrate such large numbers of people who will threaten the Jewish character of our state?

First of all, let's put the numbers into perspective. There are right now about 53,000 asylum seekers. After we assess their cases as asylum seekers, the number will decrease. (Not the full number will be found to be a 
refugee under the convention)

Secondly, the current figure is only 0.6% of our population. That's hardly an overwhelming number.   Every year, Israel provides and integrates for the duration of their visas about 70,000 foreign workers, who do menial jobs Israelis won't do. That number isn't overwhelming us nor hurting the nature of our Jewish state. The government could lower the number of foreign workers to accommodate the refugees.

Many of the asylum seekers are educated yet are willing to work hard at menial jobs especially in the hotel and food industry and construction (where the majority are employed). They have proven to be dedicated workers, many employers including the CEO of Isrotel has spoken out in their defense.

Lastly,  according to the Convention, protection does not need to be permanent. A person will cease to be a refugee once the situation in their home countries improve and the basis of their refugee status no longer exists. It may also occur if refugees VOLUNTARILY return to their home country. Many asylum seekers want to return home- but not while 
their lives and rights as human beings are being threatened.

Have you stepped into south Tel Aviv and seen them there, do you not care about the residents there?

I have been to south Tel Aviv. There's a problem there, this we cannot deny. What I'm looking for is a solution.  Once they came into Israel from the Sinai, Israel jailed them in detention centers. Once released they were either dropped off or handed a bus ticket to south Tel Aviv, without any other support. The government has further exasperated the problem by making it increasingly difficult for asylum seekers to work: therefore increasing the rate of unemployment. This has caused an increase in crime. Like any group of people, including Israeli society, there are criminals among them, however this is not representative of the whole population.  

It should also be noted that the crime statistics have been exaggerated by the government ministers. According to data represented at the Knesset's committee meeting on Migrant Workers in March 19, 2012 the crime rates for foreigners stood at 2.24% in 2011, while the crime rate among other populations in 2010 stood at 4.99%. The reported increases in crime where also explained by Police commissioner Yocahanan Danimo as crimes of desperation who advocated for asylum seekers to be allowed to work. 

The first step to helping the residents in South Tel Aviv is to face the problem by first assessing who has a claim as a refugee. Once we know who to grant refugee status to they will be granted the right to work. We can help relocate them to other parts of Israel that require menial workers. 

But if we are nice to them, more will come into Israel?

Last year, only 12 asylum seekers came into Israel because we built a fence over the border. This fence is what is preventing people accessing Israel.  Right now, we have essentially frozen the number at 53,000. 

Why have there been protests the last few days- why now?

The protests and the national strike has erupted for two main reasons. The first is that the government passed an amendment to the Anti Infiltration Law, (the "Ammendment"). Under the Amendment, asylum seekers can be sent to the "detention center" in the south called Holot. They can be sent there without any judicial process, and without judicial representation. (They have no right to a lawyer) The center is run by police. The prisoners need to be present three times a day for roll call. Upon entering Holot, they are given a number instead of their name. They can leave the jail in the day, but if are away for more than 48 hours, the police can arrest them and bring them back. There is no work in the area. No Israelis are allowed to enter the center. This is a jail, let's not kid ourselves.   When over 100 prisoners of Holot last week marched to Jerusalem in protest, they were arrested and returned to Holot.

This Initial draft of the Anti Infiltration Law was struck down by Israel's Supreme Court as unconstitutional for violating basic human rights. The Amendment will be discussed by the Supreme Court soon.

The second spark was a comment by the government that they will no longer be renewing visas. Right now, asylum seekers are provided a visa, valid only for 3-5 months, under "group protection". This visa, although not a work permit, insured that they will be allowed to stay in Israel. The government has had a policy of turning a blind eye to illegal employment, although it has recently threatened to enforce it as well. Every few months, asylum seekers hold their breathe in fear their visas won't get renewed as they jump through bureaucratic hoops. This time, they worry that their visas won't be renewed. If they have no visa, they can be arrested and taken to Holot.  Additionally they risk losing their jobs if they don't have a valid visa.

The Interior Ministry has limited the places, times and dates of when they will renew the visas.  For example, the office in Jerusalem will not hand out renewals anymore.  In the offices that are open, it is only twice a week for two and half hours.  Not having a valid visa is cause for being sent to Holot.  

Further, those that have been granted a renewal in their visas in the last few days, have been receiving "invitations" to Holot. This "invitation" declares that after the new visa expires (most of these renewals have only been one more month) they must go to Holot.  If they do not go to Holot, they will be arrested and sent to Holot.

Is Holot a good solution?

Holot construction and upkeep this year alone has cost Israeli taxpayers NIS 440 million dollars. Couldn't this money have been better used? Not just to help socially with the refugees, but even with other social issues within Israel?

Further, the detention center can only hold about 3,000 people. Is this Israel's solution? That still leaves 50,000 refugees. We've built a detention center to abuse the rights of 3,000 refugees without a humane and realistic solution to the problem. As discussed above refugees are not allowed to be punished for their illegal entry into the host country.  (Please note: That there are closed detention centers at the border also used by Israel, for example Saharonim, which can fit another 2,000 refugees.  It's likely that Israel will expand both facilities.) 

Aside from it's restriction size and it's drain on Israeli economy, Holot tramples on human rights.  The Israeli government has called it a "detention center" but according to the description above, it is clearly a jail.  Without any chance of a trial or legal representation, the asylum seekers' freedom as human beings is being threatened.  Additionally, indefinite detentions violates international norms. 

So if you demand one thing from the government what would it be?

The government should stand up to its international obligation and examine every case. Those who are deserving of refugee status should be given it. We should not be ignoring our legal and moral obligations.

Why do you support this cause, rather than other problems in Israel? Like poverty in Israel or disease?

My support for this cause doesn't negate my support for other causes. But I see a problem here. I see human rights being abused. I see freedom being taken away. I see racism.  I see Israel ignoring international law it agreed to. Because of this, I can't stand by and be silent. All we need are voices to encourage our government to listen: hear their cases. Assess their claims. After this, I'm open to debate about the next step. But right now the solution is to follow the law of the Convention.

Disclaimer: Please note that I am aware of the complexities of international law and the challenges Israel faces, I intend this information to be a starting point for further conversation, feel free to do your own research as well.  You can email either me or Shallya and we will try our best to answer questions and update the fact sheet.  

Also helpful is HIAS FAQ, which can be found here. And another page of information from ARDC, which can be found here

Written by Hailey Dilman and Shallya Scher 


  1. Have you thought about publishing this as an op-ed or letter to the editor? A shorter version would be really helpful if we could get it on other forums, like the Times of Israel or J Post. Great work!

  2. Thanks for your comment- here is an Oped I've already written for the Times of Israel:

    I also have a oped that will be published in the Jpost, that will be published soon.

    The idea of this post is to inform people on the facts and what's happening. Those two opeds summarize the main points.

    Thanks for the support!

  3. Well said. Thank you for raising people's informed awareness to this serious and complex situation.

  4. i posted that comment - you can reach me at sarahgroner at gmail dot com

  5. "According to the Convention the first safe country is responsible for the asylum seekers. Egypt is not considered 'safe' for asylum seekers." Which is why you explain that Israel is obligated to take in the refugees, since it is the first "safe" country they get to.

    In actuality, there is no definition of "safe" and "unsafe" countries in the Convention.

    Paragraph 1 of Article 31 states that: The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of article 1, enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their
    illegal entry or presence."

    What the Convention does point out, however, is that the refugees are those who are coming DIRECTLY from the country of their persecution, which would be Egypt for most of them. Egypt is legally obligated to accept them and not punish them for illegal entry. Israel is not the first country they directly come to. I think it's important to clarify that in your FAQ, especially since as far as I can tell, the word "safe" doesn't even appear in the Convention once

  6. Although you are correct that the 'safe country' principle is not directly in the convention it has become an accepted principle. The 'first safe country principle' sates that a refugee should ask for asylum in the first safe country it passes through, however there are certain caveats to this. The country must be safe, and it must be assured that there will be no chain refoulment. If Israel sends an asylum seeker back to Egypt and Egypt then sends them back to the country they were fleeing Israel will be repsonsible. It is also generally accepted that the country must agree to the asylum seeker being sent back.

    It is also argued that the principle should be used to prevent forum shopping, that is once someone has a link to the first safe country they should ask for asylum there. It is argued that passing through a country on transit, like many asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea pass through Egypt on their way to Israel were not in Egypt long enough to form a substantial link.

    Lastly although Egypt is a singnatory to the Refugee convention they are not considered a country which grants the necessary protection to asylum seekers. for example Canada does not list them as a safe country.,
    and read the UNHCR report

    The fact that the Israeli government hasn't deported all the asylum seekers back to Egypt could also be seen as an indication that the government is aware that Egypt is not actually safe.

    Further reading:
    Moore, Andrew F 'Unsafe in America: A review of the US-Canada Safe Third Country Agreement'.
    the refugee