(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The government has been unable to stem the flow of African asylum seekers crossing into Israel from the Sinai Desert, the new State Comptroller's Report notes. The report blames both a failure to institute a comprehensive policy on the issue as well as exceedingly slow work from the Israeli office of the United Nations Commissioner on Refugees.
Since 2005, the number of asylum seekers that have illegally entered Israel has escalated. In the 15 months that elapsed between January 2007 and March 2008, 10,000 Africans crossed into Israel from its southern border.
The asylum seekers can be divided into two categories - those who come from countries which Israel does not regard as enemy states, and those who come from Sudan, which is listed as an enemy state.
The law that deals with the former is the Citizenship Law. The Interior Ministry and the police are responsible for the implementation of this law. Asylum seekers from enemy countries are governed by the Law against Infiltration.
Israel is also a signatory to the International Covenant regarding the Status of Refugees, which imposes humanitarian responsibilities on all partners to the covenant involving the legal status and rights of the refugees.
According to the Interior Ministry's Asylum Seekers Regulation, a foreigner who enters Israel seeking asylum must apply to the Israeli office of the UN Commissioner on Refugees. The Israeli office examines the request and either rejects it out of hand because it does not meet the criteria of the covenant, or decides that they merit further consideration.
The office then examines more deeply those applications that stand a chance of being accepted, sometimes together with a special advisory committee to the interior minister. The advisory committee considers the UN office findings and submits its recommendation to the interior minister, who has the final say.
From the time the refugee submits his application he is granted the right to remain in Israel and work while the committee and the government examine his request. If his application for refugee status is approved, he will be allowed to stay in Israel, with periodic review to examine his situation, and also be entitled to health insurance and social benefits.
The state comptroller found that when the UN committee rejected an application out of hand, it took six months to complete the procedure.
Regarding those applications that required deeper investigation, it took an average of 33 months to complete the process and either grant or reject the application.
The fact that the procedure is so protracted is injurious to both the asylum seeker and the state. Those whose applications are eventually approved have to live without health insurance and social benefits for years. On the other hand, those whose applications are ultimately rejected have had several years to fade into the background and are hard to find in order to expel.
One of the reasons for the prolonged procedure is the vast increase in the number of applications for asylum over the past few years. In 2000, 165 foreigners applied for asylum. In the first two-thirds of 2007, there were 2,968 applications.
The state comptroller urged the interior minister to try to help the Israeli branch of the UN Commissioner on Refugees speed up the examination of the applications.
A large proportion of the African asylum seekers who have entered Israel came from Sudan, including Darfur - where government-supported Arab tribes are committing genocide against the non-Arab population.
The Law against Infiltration includes more draconian conditions than the Citizenship Law.
The state has one day to inform a foreigner who illegally entered Israel from a country that is not regarded as an enemy whether he is to be held in custody or released on bail. He must be brought before a court to review his detention within 14 days of the order and must be released from custody after 60 days.
Those held under the Law against Infiltration do not have the same privileges. There is no limit to the amount of time they can be held in detention and their cases are not reviewed by an independent court.
In the year 2000, the attorney-general issued a directive to the effect that the asylum seekers from Sudan should not be indiscriminately regarded as dangerous and that the army should examine each one individually. The Citizenship Law was to be applied to those who were not considered as dangerous to security.
The directive was not obeyed because the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency, or ISA) believed all Sudanese asylum seekers should be regarded as dangerous.
The army, however, maintained that each asylum seeker should be examined individually and those who were found to be not dangerous should be treated in accordance with the Citizenship Law.
As a result of the disagreement, a hybrid arrangement was found which contradicted the attorney-general's directive. The Sudanese men were held in jail in accordance with the Law against Infiltration, while the women and children were regarded as not dangerous and therefore not jailed. The army, with the aid of human rights groups, helped some of the women and children find housing solutions. In other cases, the women and children were simply released from confinement without any solution to their needs.
In November 2005, the Military Advocate-General complained to Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz that the army could not cope with the problem of the Sudanese asylum seekers. In November 2006, after a second complaint, Mazuz wrote to the prime minister and the defense minister, saying that the question of whether or not the Sudanese asylum seekers were dangerous had to be resolved, as well as other problems regarding the flood of Africans crossing the border.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert issued orders that any Sudanese who was not regarded as a security threat after being examined would be treated by the civilian authorities. According to the state comptroller, it took the Interior Ministry and the Prisons Service many months to take over responsibility for the Sudanese.
Meanwhile, the army decided on its own that if the civilian authorities were not ready to take over the responsibility for infiltrators, it would simply release them.
The state comptroller criticized the relevant government ministries for not taking over responsibility for the Sudanese refugees as soon as the prime minister's directive was issued, and the Prime Minister's Office for not overseeing the implementation of the order.
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