What rankles almost as much as Israel’s erratic treatment of African asylum
seekers is the callous ignorance of some its leaders. No one at all familiar
with Jewish history would call displaced persons “purveyors of disease,” as
Interior Minister Eli Yishai did, or claim with Likud lawmaker Miri Regev that
they are “a cancer in our body.”
Not surprisingly, these inflammatory
statements triggered hate crimes against asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv and
elsewhere in June.
Although the government was quick to condemn the
violence, for many it was guilty on at least two counts: Not doing enough to
stop the incitement and pursuing a confused policy on refugees.
angry letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a group of leading
intellectuals accused him of hiding “behind the street” and “behind coalition
members inciting in the style of the 1930s.”
William Tall, the UN High
Commissioner for Refugees in Israel, also blamed the government for the
continuing unrest in the poorer urban areas where the asylum seekers live. In
his view, by calling asylum seekers “infiltrators” and implying that it could
deport them all in double quick time, when it knew that the vast majority had
been granted collective immunity and could not be repatriated, the government
was creating unrealistic expectations that would blow up in its face.
the 60,000 asylum seekers in Israel, around 50,000 or 83 percent are Eritrean or
Sudanese. In 2008, at UN insistence, Israel granted both groups “collective
This meant undertaking not to return them to their home
countries as long as this put their lives at risk. But, in a move opposed by the
UN, Israel took this collective undertaking as a license to stop processing
individual applications for refugee status, with attendant residency rights. The
thinking was to keep members of both groups in a limbo status so that they could
be repatriated en masse as soon as conditions in their home countries
Social disaster The result was social disaster: Around 50,000
asylum seekers in Israel who cannot be deported, but cannot legally work because
their temporary residency permits don’t allow it, have no access to social
services or non-emergency medical treatment and cannot receive international aid
because they are not classed as refugees. Draconian legislation in January and
early June made matters worse: The threat of heavy fines and long jail terms
frightened away people who had been employing asylum seekers
The policy has left huge concentrations of unemployed asylum
seekers eking out whatever subsistence they can in poor urban areas like south
Tel Aviv and inevitably clashing with local residents falsely led to believe
that the newcomers would soon be deported.
The government’s answer:
detention facilities near the Egyptian border. This would take the asylum
seekers off the streets, house, clothe and feed them until deportation
opportunities presented themselves.
But there are two gaping holes in the
The detention facilities will be able to hold 15,000 asylum seekers
at most. What about the other 45,000? How are they supposed to fend for
themselves? Moreover, indefinite detention of asylum seekers without processing
their individual applications for refugee status violates international laws
ratified by Israel.
After the Holocaust, Israel was one of the initiators
of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which it ratified
in 1954. But although it also accepted the additional protocols in 1968, it
never incorporated the convention into domestic law. As a result its asylum
policies are governed by Interior Ministry regulations enforced by the
ministry’s Population, Immigration and Borders Authority.
On the face of
it, three aspects of these regulations and consequent Israeli practice violate
the UN convention: failure to consider individual eligibility for asylum;
failure to provide asylum seekers with social, health and employment rights
while their applications are processed; and indefinite detention of asylum
To this Israel added two draconian laws that clearly contravene
the convention. In January, the government quietly adapted a 1954
antiinfiltration law against terrorists to apply to all those illegally crossing
the border, enabling detention of asylum seekers for up to three years. In June,
a new law imposed up to five years in jail and fines of up to $1.3 million on
people who employ them.
Israel has not always taken such an
uncompromising stand. In 1977, it was among the first countries to welcome
Between 1977 and 1979, it took in over 300
Vietnamese “boat people.”
“We have never forgotten the boat with 900
Jews, the St. Louis, having left Germany in the last weeks before the Second
World War…traveling from harbor to harbor, from country to country, crying out
for refuge,” declared Prime Minister Menachem Begin, displaying a sense of
Jewish history some of his successors seem to lack.
Some argue that the
fervor with which Interior Minister Yishai is acting against today’s asylum
seekers stems from a hidden economic agenda. They charge that companies bringing
in foreign workers for a fee make at least $10,000 per worker. Every asylum
seeker who takes a job means one foreign worker less and a $10,000 loss to one
of around 160 manpower companies, some of which are said to have close ties with
Yishai’s Shas party.
In June, Yishai began targeting South Sudanese
asylum seekers, after a ruling by a Jerusalem Court that South Sudan, after
gaining independence, was no longer dangerous.
The South Sudanese were
offered resettlement stipends if they accepted voluntary repatriation, 1000
euros for adults, 500 euros for minors. If they didn’t, they would be rounded up
and expelled empty-handed.
The number of South Sudanese is estimated at
barely 1,000. So that even if they are all repatriated, it will make only a tiny
dent in the numbers. Moreover, in summarily expelling South Sudanese who refuse
to go voluntarily, Israel would again be contravening the strict letter of the
law. According to UN procedure, it is legally bound to first consider their
individual asylum applications.
Part of the problem is that the refugee
status determination process is log-jammed. In 2009, it was transferred from the
UN High Commission for Refugees to the Interior Ministry, where there are only
14 officials handling tens of thousands of applications.
The heady brew
of insensitive government policy, incitement and violence has played into the
hands of Israel’s detractors. It has also hurt Israel’s image in the US,
especially among Afro-Americans.
Israel would be much better off allowing
asylum seekers their full rights: legal permission to work as well as access to
social and health services while their asylum applications are processed
efficiently and according to clear guidelines.
To keep the numbers down
to manageable proportions, it could take a few internationally acceptable steps:
• Complete the 150 mile fence along the porous Egyptian border, which asylum
seekers have been crossing in growing numbers.
• Cut the number of
foreign workers brought into the country by the number of asylum seekers in
work. In 2009, Israel brought in 120,000 foreign workers, compared to just over
4,000 asylum seekers.
• Have a fixed refugee quota, something like
opposition Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich’s proposal that no more than 2,000
asylum seekers can be granted refugee status each year.
sponsored by the Kadima Party seeks to address the overall question of migration
to Israel. It seems to be going in the right general direction: Making it
difficult for migrants to get into Israel, but granting them full social,
employment and temporary residency rights once they do, and instituting tough
but clear criteria for permanent residency.