New regulations issued for handling asylum claims

Bureaucratic change comes in response to influx of migrants; rights groups: Rules just a ‘fig leaf’ for lack of government policy.

December 14, 2010 06:10
African Refugees

African Refugees 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

The Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Borders Authority (PIBA) released new regulations on Monday for the handling of asylum-seekers.

The regulations, which are being made public for the first time, outline the process through which a foreign subject can apply for state protection and refugee status, and aid in distinguishing between people filing genuine asylum claims and those applying for state protection in order to remain in Israel for financial reasons.

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The 20-page paper, which describes in detail the bureaucratic path from infiltrator to refugee, was produced by a joint committee made up of representatives from a variety of state agencies, including the Justice, Interior and Foreign ministries. The regulations were written taking into account Israel’s commitments to international treaties on refugees, as well as the rapidly growing number of asylum-seekers asking for Israel’s protection.

The new regulations will go into effect on January 2 and do not require additional legislation or cabinet decisions.

“The new regulations replace existing regulations, penned several years ago by former attorney-general [Menahem] Mazuz,” said PIBA legal counsel Daniel Solomon.

“They have been updated to reflect two new realities: one, Israel’s taking over responsibility of handling asylum requests from the United Nations a year and a half ago, and two, the growing phenomenon of illegal infiltration across the Egyptian border.

“Currently the way the system works is slow and inefficient,” he explained. “The large numbers of applications mean that applicants often wait for months for their requests to be processed, all the time enjoying state protection and the ability to reside and work in Israel, many of them clearly without cause.”

Solomon said the new regulations made the entire process quicker and greatly increased the state’s ability to reject applications out of hand.

“Under the current regulations, for example, a foreign worker from Thailand could file for protection, claiming asylum for political reasons.

Though the claim is clearly fictitious, it would go through the entire process, clogging the system and allowing the worker to remain here for months while waiting for the answer. Under the new regulations, the claim could be immediately rejected by a PIBA official,” he said.

Solomon estimated that nearly 50 percent of asylum claims could be rejected on the spot under the new regulations.

He said the new regulations also offered increased transparency for the asylum-seeking process, stating in which cases applicants could be accompanied by a lawyer, which documents the state was required to share with the applicants and when the use of an interpreter was required. When asked if PIBA had the manpower to operate under the new regulations, Solomon said that the existing personnel would be augmented to better meet the requirements.

The regulations were greeted with disdain in human rights circles, which characterized them as a “fig leaf” for the government’s lack of a human rights policy.

Oded Feller, legal counsel for the Migrant Workers Hotline, said that the new regulations were nothing but a tool to enable the state to deport asylum-seekers and showed no concern for human rights.

“The main difference between these regulations and the previous ones is that these ones have been made public. The old regulations were completely inaccessible to the public,” said Feller.

“From an initial reading of the new regulations I can tell that they enshrine the way things currently operate, and as we know, the current state is far from satisfactory and fails to meet Israel’s human rights commitments on many levels,” continued Feller.

“One thing that blatantly stands out is that the regulations offer extensive powers to interior ministry clerks, especially when it comes to refusing applications out of hand,” he went on. “These regulations provide exceptional decision- making authority to state officials, unlike any other country in the world. This is especially worrying because of the legal weight that the regulations carry.

“We have to remember that these are only internal regulations,” he pointed out. “They are not enshrined in legislation. They are even less committing than a ministerial decree. Yet they have the power to condemn people to deportation and potentially torture and death.”

Another major problem Feller identified in the regulations was that they didn’t address the issue of collective protection for people from countries identified as conflict zones.

“A majority of the asylum-seekers, nearly 90 percent, are people who came from Sudan and Eritrea. These people by definition cannot be expelled or turned away from Israel because they come from places that are internationally recognized as conflict zones, yet the regulations don’t even mention their rights for state protection,” he said.

While the regulations do not mention Sudan per se, they do state that Israel has the right to automatically refuse asylum to people who come from enemy states, a list that presumably includes Sudan.

Solomon said that the issue of Sudanese asylum-seekers had yet to be established, but Feller said the clause was ludicrous.

“The clause on refusing subjects of enemy states is ridiculous. It suggests that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my enemy.’ These are people who are fleeing torture and war at the hands of their own government, and Israel proposes to reject them for their nationality,” said Feller.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Israel, William Tall, said that his office was still studying the details of the regulations, but that it had submitted 12 pages of comments on the regulations’ draft proposal and expressed hope that its comments had been taken into account.

“Our main concerns are about the out-of-hand refusals. We appreciate that Israel wants a short and efficient process, but we need to make sure that it is also a fair one,” said Tall.

Tall said he was aware that Israel, like many other countries, was concerned that people were abusing the process in order to gain additional license to stay in the country, but that all efforts had to be made to honor human rights.

A new human rights group called Anu Plitim (We Are Refugees) has begun spreading posters around Tel Aviv, calling for public action to aid the African migrants. The group, founded this year to provide free legal assistance to asylum-seekers, began its campaign on Friday at the annual human rights march.

Its posters call out against use of the term “infiltrators” to describe the migrants seeking asylum in Israel. The group printed a series of posters and stickers reading, “Call your grandfather an infiltrator” or “Asking for asylum – receiving prison,” all equating the plight of the migrants to that of post-World War II Jewish refugees.

“The characterization of refugees as infiltrators is a racist and demagogic tool used by the establishment to incite against the African migrants. It is wrong to delegitimize a whole group of ill-fated people, who only want refuge, because of the way they entered the country,” said Shira Penn, the group’s director- general, referring to the illegal Jewish immigration to pre-state Israel.

“Many of our grandparents entered the country in a way that today would have been considered infiltration, aboard Ha’apala ships,” she asserted. “Only three generations ago we ourselves were refugees. Have we forgotten the lessons so quickly?”

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