Refugees, asylum-seekers and protection - analysis

The Israeli Interior Ministry is taking over the process of Refugee Status Determination (RSD) from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) on 2 July.

Some 15,000 mainly African asylum-seekers in Israel have put the regulatory, security and welfare response under strain, according to the Interior Ministry and UNHCR.

Israel does not have a refugee law, despite being a signatory to the 1951 refugee Convention.

However, regulations can allow asylum-seekers to work, and grant temporary protection and non-refoulement (a commitment not to force people back to where they came from).

About 200-300 asylum-seekers arrive each month, mainly overland from Egypt, according to the Immigration Authority and NGOs.

The UNHCR local office reports 14,766 asylum-seekers in Israel, while the Refugee Rights Forum (RRF - eight NGOs active in promoting the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers in Israel) suggests a number over 17,000. 

The difference may in part be explained by the fact that UNHCR does not count asylum-seekers who are no longer in touch with them, according to William Tall, a UNHCR representative in Israel.

In the run-up to the handover of the RSD process to the Interior Ministry on 2 July, UNHCR has helped train 25 immigration officers who will begin work in July.

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According to Mickey Bavly, an honorary UNHCR representative, (interviewed in July 2007), the status of asylum-seekers used to be reviewed as follows: “We interview asylum-seekers and make a recommendation to the government, to a special body headed by an independent jurist and composed of the ministries of interior, foreign affairs and justice. The committee then makes the recommendation based on our file.”

UNHCR’s Tall said: “We must recognize the positive steps of the government of Israel regarding asylum-seekers. The 'open' border allowing asylum-seekers to enter and the fact that the government of Israel allows them to stay are, in fact, positive measures that must be noted.”

Yaccov Ganot, head of the Immigration Authority, however told local media his aim was to reduce the number of “infiltrators”, by enhancing residential restrictions and making greater use of detention.

Israel has granted refugee status to some 170 people. According to UNHCR, only 70 of these are in Israel today. The rest have gone to other countries. Some nationalities such as Liberians, Ivorians and Congolese have been given “group protection” under UNHCR. In addition, 452 people fleeing Darfur in Sudan were granted temporary residency in Israel, but over 1,000 others from Darfur were not.

Photo: Shabtai Gold/IRIN
Egyptian-Israeli border fence. Near this point, African asylum-seekers cross into Israel nearly every night seeking refuge

A dangerous crossing

Nearly all asylum-seekers come from Egypt at night. Israel’s southern border is over 230km long and porous; only a low fence separates the two states.

Asylum-seekers pay Bedouin guides hundreds of US dollars to get them to the frontier where they risk getting shot at by Egyptian border guards.

In recent years hundreds have been wounded and detained while attempting to cross the border, and several have been deported to their countries of birth, according to UNHCR and NGOs in Cairo.

Others have been shot dead. In November 2008, Human Rights Watch (HRW) alleged 33 deaths of asylum-seekers at the hands of Egyptian soldiers.

Interviewers from the NGO Hotline for Migrant Workers (Moked) told IRIN: “We've conducted thousands of interviews and hundreds of people reported being shot at and having at least one person in their group hit and disappear,” they said.

One Eritrean asylum-seeker was shot dead by an Israeli Defence Force (IDF) border patrol unit in May 2009.

Photo: Tamar Dressler/IRIN
An Israeli guard explains matters to new arrivals at a camp for asylum-seekers

Once in Israel…

Once in Israel they face tough conditions but receive assistance from UNHCR and local NGOs, including Moked, Assaf, the African Refugee Development Centre (ARDC) and Physicians for Human Rights (PHR).

NGOs provide medical care, shelter, clothes and legal assistance. Children over five are entitled to free education until the age of 16.

NGOs and asylum-seekers say education and job opportunities are poor outside Tel Aviv. Sigal Rosen from Moked said many work permits are restricted.

According to Nathalie Rubin, director of Assaf, asylum-seekers display high levels of distress resulting in depression, alcohol abuse, violence and other destructive behaviour. Three cases of suicide and a suicide attempt have been reported in recent months.

About 2,000 asylum-seekers are in prison, mainly in Ktziot prison, southern Israel. According to UNHCR, many are visa violators - asylum-seekers detained in areas in which they were not allowed, or whose visas had expired.

Photo: Tamar Dressler/IRIN
African asylum-seekers attempt to keep warm by huddling in the sunshine, at the tent compound in Ktziot prison, southern Israel (file photo)

“Hot returns”

Tall said UNHCR does not agree with the policy of “hot returns” implemented in the recent past by the IDF.

“Hot return” implies immediate refoulement of asylum-seekers after they have crossed the border, without allowing them access to RSD, and in contravention of the 1951 Convention

Several NGOs filed a plea with the Supreme Court following the “hot returns” of August 2008, asking the court to order IDF to stop the process, yet the plea is still pending, according to NGOs and reserve soldiers.