0/> 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
By Yonatan Berman and Oded Feller
Tuesday, January 24 2012
'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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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Received on Wed Jan 25 2012 - 06:30:35 EST