As World Refugee Day was commemorated around the world on Thursday, it is puzzling that Israel officially has only 14 refugees, despite having over 30,000 asylum seekers from African countries, many of whom are seeking refugee status.
“No one knows the exact number,” Guli Dolev from the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) told The Jerusalem Post, but the assumption is that there are between 30,000 and 35,000 currently in Israel.
Most of the African asylum seekers in Israel are Eritrean and Sudanese, and illegally crossed into Israel through its border with Egypt starting in 2006.
According to the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, a refugee is someone who is forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence.
While people from these countries have difficulty receiving refugee status in Israel, the UN refugee agency reported that on average, 58% of Eritreans and 41% of Sudanese are recognized by the European Union. In other words, many fleeing these countries are considered refugees, but cannot obtain that status in Israel.
“As an [official] policy, the RSDs [Refugee Status Determination documents] are not being checked,” Dolev explained. This means that Israel is actively avoiding going through the paperwork asylum seekers submit to request refugee status.
According to a Haaretz report, out of the 15,000 requests sent to the Advisory Committee on Refugee Issues – where asylum seekers request to achieve refugee status – only two requests were discussed.
The status of an asylum seeker is supposed to be temporary, which is why “many who can leave, do,” Dolev said. “It is important to know that the amount of asylum seekers is decreasing.”
While there once was many as 60,000 Eritreans in Israel, today there are 23,500, according to the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants in Israel. Out of these asylum seekers, only one Sudanese man and 13 Eritreans have been formally recognized as refugees by Israel.
ISRAEL HAS recognized less than 1% of those who have requested refugee status, according to the African Refugee Development Center. To try to deal with the massive amount of asylum seekers, the Israeli government in 2013 opened the Holot detention center to hold Sudanese and Eritrean men there.
Run by Israel’s prison service, the center was told by the Supreme Court in 2014 to close, according to the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel (ASSAF in Hebrew).
In another attempt to try to solve the issue, Israel has a Voluntary Return Department, which gives asylum seekers a plane ticket and a few thousand dollars to return home. Many critique this program, because those who would be considered refugees often would face extreme danger if they return.
Over half of the Israeli public (52%) believe that asylum seekers should be permitted to remain in the country until arrangements are reached for their settlement, according to the Jerusalem-based Center for International Migration and Integration (CIMI), which published a new survey in January.
While the Israeli public seems to want to find a solution to the thousands of people in limbo in Israel, the government seems more resistant.
In April 2018, Israel reached an agreement with the United Nation High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) to permit about half of African asylum seekers in Israel to resettle in Western countries, with the other half remaining in the country.
Just 24 hours after it was announced, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about-faced and canceled the deal.
Netanyahu said that, despite “growing legal and international difficulties, we will continue to act with determination to exhaust all of the possibilities available to us to remove the infiltrators – and at the same time we will continue to look for additional solutions.”
WHILE THERE is no clear plan for Israel’s asylum seekers today, many organizations like ARDC encourage people that there is still a way to help.
“If you are a doctor, go to Physicians for Human Rights Israel,” Dolev said, explaining that there are ways to help no matter your skills or profession. Specifically, ARDC provides help for asylum seekers to improve their professional and personal development. They recruit volunteers to teach them English, Hebrew or even piano.
However, Dolev wanted to emphasize that while refugees need help and resources, they have power and strength. “That’s the whole point of the refugee event today,” he said.
In honor of World Refugee Day, ARDC hosted an event in Tel Aviv on Thursday where asylum seekers can show off their creativity and talent.
“Many times they are portrayed as weak,” Dolev said. “People don’t understand how much power and creativity the community has.”
The event on Thursday co-hosted by the Center for Art and Politics and Marcel Art Projects was to include a conversation with Adam Ahmed, a Darfurian asylum seeker and author, as well as art workshops, including the premiere of the new production, “The Crazy Refugee,” an original comic play.
The issue of asylum seekers is not the only one regarding refugees with which Israel is struggling. According to UNWRA, there are 5,340,443 registered Palestinian refugees as of January 2017.
Israel contests UNWRA’s definition, claiming that only survivors who left in 1948 and not their descendants should be defined as refugees today. In 2018, the Israel government shared a study with the US, arguing that the number of such Palestinian refugees is only in the thousands, Reuters reported.
The Israeli study was not published publicly, according to the report, and there is no current solution to the discrepancy.
According to the UNHCR report published on Thursday, there are almost 70.8 million individuals who have been forcibly displaced worldwide.
Over 6.5 million refugees come from Syria, four million from Venezuela and 2.5 million from Afghanistan.
Some 80% of the world’s refugees have been able to find refuge in neighboring countries, but these countries are often poor and lack the resources to support the incoming population, according to the report.Herb Keinon and Eytan Halon contributed to this report.
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