For most of Israel's history, the word refugee has been associated with Jewish communities fleeing persecution or Palestinians stuck for decades in makeshift camps. The few dozen asylum-seekers a year requesting refugee status in Israel were not assessed by the state, but by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), with help from the Joint Distribution Committee.
But in recent years, local and regional events have drawn hundreds of asylum-seekers here every month, flooding the system and underscoring Israel's need for an independent refugee processing system.
With no written policy and no experience with non-Jewish immigration or asylum, Israel in 2008 turned for advice to the US-based Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a global agency with offices in Israel. Its former Israel director, lawyer Neil Grungras, was the first to teach international refugee law in Israel in 2001.
By this year, the Interior Ministry, HIAS and the UNHCR were working together to train ministry officers to use international refugee law to assess asylum claims. The US Department of Homeland Security sent trainers to join the HIAS and UNHCR staff and the European Union partially funded training, with the JDC's Center for International Migration and Integration obtaining the EU grant. HIAS quietly invested more than $200,000 in this project, through its Israel office.
In July, Israel became one of the last developed countries to launch an asylum claims process - without fanfare and virtually without notice.
Joel Moss, a recently retired member of Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board and the current director of HIAS Israel, who oversaw the training of the Interior Ministry officers, tells The Jerusalem Post about the recently launched Israel unit, and Israel's transition and challenges in dealing with refugees.
How many asylum-seekers are in Israel and how have the numbers grown?
There are about 18,000 asylum-seekers in Israel now, mostly from Africa and some from Eastern Europe and the Far East.
Up until around 2003, if there were 100 new asylum-seekers in Israel a year, that was a lot. Now there are often 600-1,000 arriving each month. [These] are large numbers for a country this size and for a country that never dealt with this issue before.
If you do the pro-rata calculation between the population of Israel and the US, it as if the US had seen a rise from 2,000 asylum seekers in 2005 to half a million in 2009. That's a staggering shift.
How many of these are from Darfur?
There are about 2,500 to 3,000 from that part of Sudan and another 3,000-3,500 from south Sudan, which is a very different situation.
South Sudan is evolving towards an independent Christian country, with an upcoming referendum to determine its status. At least two million people have returned to south Sudan from other countries they had fled to.
Refugees from Darfur are not likely to be welcome in south Sudan because they are primarily Muslim.
Why was there such a huge increase in asylum-seekers?
In December 2005, there was a demonstration in front of the UNHCR office in Cairo and the Egyptians responded with violence, killing a number of the demonstrators, which clarified that Egypt was not such a great place to seek asylum.
Then in September 2007, prime minister Ehud Olmert granted 498 Sudanese refugee status, so asylum-seekers who had thought their final destination was Egypt started paying $1,000-$1,500 to be smuggled from Cairo to Israel.
Those two events - and continued difficulties for asylum-seekers in Egypt, particularly non-Muslims and blacks - encouraged more people to come to Israel. Israel does not provide the same kind of care for asylum-seekers as other Western countries, but it is still better than anywhere else in the neighborhood.
Why did Israel need to turn to an international refugee aid organization like HIAS to deal with the influx?
All these non-Jewish asylum-seekers were stuck. Many don't have travel documents. There is essentially no refugee law in Israel and no in-house experience in "judging" refugee claims. There is only the Law of Return for Jews.
Israel was one of the first countries to sign the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees and the corresponding 1967 protocol. So whether or not there is a refugee law in Israel, Israel has a responsibility to determine asylum claims based on the Geneva Convention and other international conventions, such as the Convention Against Torture.
It became clear with the increasing numbers that it was time for Israel to take this responsibility over from the UNHCR. It is standard practice for countries to establish their own refugee determination system
How many refugee claims have been processed and how many seeking refugee status are accepted?
I am not aware of published statistics [but] estimate that at least 1,000-1,500 claims have been reviewed since the completion of the training in April. I would estimate that less than 5 percent and maybe closer to 1-2% have been granted refugee status. In Canada and the US, the acceptance rates are about 50% and 45% respectively.
But there are significantly different kinds of claims in Israel because to get to Canada or the US will cost $10-$15,000 for airfare, a false passport and false visa, and for professional smuggling. To get to Israel from Egypt costs $1,000-$1,500 and can often be accomplished over land without documents.
So people risk less to get here and will more often have claims that do not qualify them as Convention refugees. Those claims that I have been party to fail because they are not based on any of the Convention grounds of race, nationality, religion, political opinion or as members of a particular social group. Other claims fail because they have not been established as credible.
The acceptance rates are likely further affected by the fact that Israel has not yet turned its attention to adjudicating claims from Sudan and Eritrea, claims that are liable to be stronger with higher acceptance rates.
Why have claims from Darfur not been processed?
If people from Darfur were not accepted as refugees, Israel would have no way of deporting them back to the Sudan - an enemy state.
I'm not saying I agree with this approach, but given that there are only a certain number of officers, it seems that Israel has begun with claimants from countries that Israel can return people to if their claims are decided negatively. It may be possible for Israel to resettle some refugees in other countries, but not many countries are clamoring for additional refugees.
Israel is giving temporary, quasi-protection to many Sudanese without deciding their claims. Many are allowed to work but they live in a situation of uncertainty.
How do you determine whether asylum-seekers have "well-founded" fears of persecution in their home countries?
We ask: how serious is the harm the person is likely to suffer? Will they be slapped on the wrist? Put in jail for a month? Tortured? At a certain point, even discrimination can be persecution if a person can't get a job and would be deprived of the means to live.
We also have to ask if the story is credible. Is he really who he says he is and is he really part of that religious or political group? Is the person fleeing persecution or prosecution? Can the person be safe if he moves to a different city in the same country?
Also, if citizens in certain countries have access to state protection, the courts, police, etc., and the state can protect them from persecution, then asylum-seekers from those places will generally not be granted refugee status.
A person who has committed war crimes, crimes against humanity or serious non-political crimes will not normally be granted refugee status.
How do you know if a claimant is telling the truth?
First the officer has to be conversant in the situation and procedures in that country. Part of the training is also learning active listening, to read body language and to understand post-traumatic stress disorder. Victims of torture and rape often respond with dissociation.
What are the precedents for how host countries treat people waiting for refugee status?
Canada is very generous to asylum-seekers. They are given welfare, some medical services if required, and in most cases they have the right to work. The US is a little less generous and you will find a variety of standards in other countries.
In Israel, most services available to refugees are provided by NGOs or voluntary or religious organizations.
Is there a relationship between citizenship and refugee status?
Not in Israel. In the US and Canada, if you are granted refugee status, that will normally lead to permanent residence and to citizenship. In Israel you are usually granted a three-to-five year protection visa, which is reviewed after that period.
What happens to those not granted legal refugee status?
You have two weeks to appeal from the time you receive the negative decision. The asylum-seeker has to identify an error in the decision or provide new information that might change the outcome. The unit will assign a different officer to review the appeal than the one who interviewed the claimant. If rejected, you get a deportation notice.
How does Israel's new system compare to systems for assessing refugee claims in other developed countries?
In the US, a person seeking refugee status is interviewed by an asylum officer. If the officer accepts the claim, he is granted refugee status and that is the end of it. If the claim is refused, he is referred to the Immigration Court for final determination.
In Canada, when I made a decision as a member of the Refugee Board, it could only be overturned if there was a successful appeal to the Federal Court.
Here, officers are not making decisions but recommendations. It's primarily information-gathering and assessment. They send their recommendations to an interministerial committee, who then sends its recommendations to the minister of the interior, who makes the final determination.
What are some of the challenges Israel faces in dealing with refugees?
This is an expensive business for Israel, with more than 25 staff people in Tel Aviv and until recently a branch office in the South. However, given that the numbers of asylum-seekers keep [rising], the number of staff is almost inadequate. I hope Israel will diminish the backlog by training more staff, but it requires significant resources.
Is there a link between the issues of refugees and migrant workers?
The two issues are interconnected in the sense that many people in Israel feel the influx of non-Jewish foreigners will affect the character and identity of the state.
Most countries have an immigration policy. For example, Canada has a target of 250,000 immigrants a year and defines in various ways how many will be accepted as having resources, skills and education that will contribute to Canadian society. Israel has focused its immigration desires on Jewish immigration and only Jewish immigration, so it is in a very different situation than any other country.
How does the Law of Return influence the asylum process?
They are two separate domains, except for the fact that the Law of Return makes it clear what Israel's priority is regarding new citizens.
Does this priority bring discrimination into the legal process that determines refugee status? Is the interior minister objective enough to judge a claim?
I am not aware of any instance in which the minister reversed an inter-ministerial committee recommendation.
Ideally an officer is evaluating the claim based on the Geneva Convention. Refugee determination is a legal decision and the responsibility is to approach each case as an impartial judge, so social prejudice should play a very little role.
But if you look at asylum officers in any country you will find that they have biases. There was a study by Andy Schoenholtz of Georgetown University, "Refugee Roulette," that found that in the US the particular state and district where you apply and who you have as your officer will have great influence on the outcome of whether or not you are accepted as a refugee.
In any country you will find the same subjectivity. In Canada, as a member of the Refugee Board, the only reason my decisions could be overturned by the Federal Court would be if they were found to be "manifestly unreasonable" - that no normal person could come to that conclusion - or if I made an error in law.
On the other hand, members appointed [to the refugee board] by the federal cabinet were in some respects political appointees and theoretically an appointment might not be renewed if the person is making decisions that the state does not like.
It is possible to have a fair determination process in this system. But if you ask if it's better if those in Israel evaluating claims be more removed from a ministry, I'd say yes.
In general, most countries have found it more appropriate to have a judicial system rather than an administrative one. To have claims decided by a court or tribunal that is really independent of government influence in the long run has to be a more equitable system.
Will Israel's system become more removed from government?
In the late 1980s, the US and Canada also had similar administrative systems.
In Canada, a Sikh - Mr. Singh from the Punjab in India - appealed an administrative decision and the case eventually went to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court decided that when life-and-death decisions are made in Canada, the subject of that decision should have the same rights as any citizen of Canada.
That gave birth to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada and turned refugee determination from an administrative arm in the ministry of immigration to an independent tribunal.
That might happen here because Israel does recognize the rule of law. There are lawyers and NGOs who will likely petition the High Court [of Justice] in a similar manner and one way or the other, the High Court may eventually insist on a higher level of due process of law.
How did having a large influx of immigrants affect other developed countries?
In the US and Canada, immigrants make an effort to become educated and assimilate. They have brought these countries tremendous wealth and strength.
Canada and the US in particular were built by immigrants. The fact that there is a well-defined and relatively well-managed immigration policy and practice there means that immigrants can be a great advantage to a country.
The argument made against accepting greater numbers of refugees and immigrants includes job competition - increased unemployment and lower wages - financial draining of the welfare system, an increase in crime and disease, and a threat to the Jewish majority. As a refugee expert, what is your response?
During World War II, the Canadian deputy minister of immigration said about the Jews, "none is too many" and gave the same list of reasons. That list of reasons was also pronounced in European countries regarding Jews. It was also brought forth in Israel in the 1950s regarding new Jewish arrivals.
Quebec had the same discussions, worrying that immigration threatened its French character. This discrimination goes on in every society that faces new migration patterns. Most countries at various points in their histories have seen whatever social fabric they had as distinct. Israel is not unique in this sense.
Do immigrants and refugees tend to displace people from jobs and lay a burden on the welfare systems?
NGOs rightly respond that in most cases, migrants fill jobs that Israelis won't do. In my experience, the typical migrants will take work as caretakers for the elderly, farm laborers, maybe kitchen workers. Most Israelis do not flock to low-level jobs. Asylum-seekers are not eligible for welfare in Israel.
But in Canada, studies show that within 15 years, refugees and other immigrants will be productive enough and have contributed enough to society to have offset what it cost the country to absorb them. Most often, the children of refugees and immigrants will be significant contributors to society.
How are crime rates affected by refugees?
In other jurisdictions, [according to] the degree to which you have a system that responds effectively to refugee claims, you minimize this issue. A certain percentage of any population is deviant. A social scientist might say that the deviance rate is 10%-15%, so there is no reason to think that migrants or asylum-seekers would be any different from the Israeli population in this regard.
The more that claims are handled efficiently, the less likely we have issues of criminality.
Do refugees and immigrants carry more diseases?
My experience here and in Canada is that they do not pose any health risks to society. Israeli doctors have recently said that there are no remarkable differences between migrants and refugees and the regular population with regard to disease.
What is your biggest concern?
I think that we have to look at the refugee issue from a moral standpoint. If we have obligations under international agreements that we have signed, and as Jews we know what it means to be refugees, then we have to find a way to deal with these issues.
If integration of a few thousand refugees over time into Israeli society affects Israel's character and Jewish identity, then we have to look at the strength of that character and how to bolster it in other ways. To me, part of the Jewish character of Israel means fulfilling our obligations and being proud to do so.
That doesn't mean everyone who makes a claim should be Israeli, but those who are accepted as refugees should be able to live securely in Israel, for legal and moral reasons.
In terms of Jewish thought, I once heard Shlomo Carlebach say that one of the basic tenets of the Shma Yisrael [prayer] is that when people are crying and you don't hear them crying, then the rest of you may be holy but your ears are not.
What is different in Judaism in this regard compared to modern civil law is that there are more charter obligations than charter rights. In Judaism, we have an obligation to the stranger. This obligation in Judaism is probably not so different than what the Geneva Convention on refugees or the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights would require of us.
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