Why I stand with the asylum seekers

Talk to your congregations; demand that your communities apply whatever pressure they can on the Israeli government to stop this disgrace.

February 3, 2018 20:48
3 minute read.
Why I stand with the asylum seekers

An African migrant holds an Israeli flag after being released from Holot detention centre in Israel's southern Negev desert August 25, 2015.. (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)


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She was a new patient at the refugee clinic. Our meeting began with a routine history-taking and physical exam.

“Can you please raise your shirt?” I asked, as I slipped the stethoscope into my ears and leaned down to listen to her lungs, but what followed was anything but routine. Her back was laced with scars. My hand hung floating above her back, the lung exam forgotten. “What happened?” I whispered. Her eyes welled with tears.

“Sinai,” she said. “I was held there for a month, I was beaten, I was raped, until I managed to run away.”

Tears were now welling in my eyes as well.

“Can you please take a breath?” I whispered.

Unfortunately A’s story is all too common. Of the 37,000 African asylum seekers currently in Israel, an estimated 4,000 were held in torture camps in Egypt on their way to what they thought was safety. But upon their arrival in Israel they found that their ordeal was far from over. Applying for refugee status is a practically impossible feat. There is only one office in the entire country at which asylum seekers can submit their requests for refugee status and its opening hours are arbitrary. Upon entry, many asylum seekers are still denied the right to submit their applications. Of the lucky few who have managed to submit applications, only a few thousand have been evaluated and only 11 have received a refugee status in Israel – by far the lowest approval rate in all of the Western world.

The rest of the 37,000 asylum seekers live under an arbitrary, baffling and at times downright cruel system. They do not receive work permits, but if they do work they are forced to pay taxes. However, paying taxes does not provide them with access to Israel’s socialized medical system, nor to any other social benefit.

Recently, in an especially harsh step to try to push them out of the country, the government announced that 20% of asylum seekers’ earnings will be withheld in a trust which will only be available to them upon leaving Israel. Many families are now on the verge of starvation, relying entirely on NGOs and volunteers. A special internment camp was created in the unforgiving Negev desert in which many young male asylum seekers are held in difficult conditions with no clear release date.

And now a new blow is being dealt – deportation to a third-party “safe” country, reportedly Uganda and Rwanda, which will receive a cash kickback for every asylum seeker they accept. Recent investigations show that these third-party countries are anything but safe. Asylum seekers from Israel who left “voluntarily” to these countries had their papers confiscated and were subjected to violence and peril that at times cost them their lives.

I am a young physician and a young mother and I have met many of these asylum seekers, many of whom are young mothers themselves. As I put my two six-month-old sons to sleep I wonder what I will one day tell them. That their great-grandparents fled Nazi-occupied Europe only to create a country that will not accept people facing dire circumstances? That the head of the Population and Immigration Authority, Prof. Shlomo Mor Yosef, was a physician, but I, a fellow colleague, a granddaughter of refugees, said nothing?

No, I will not, cannot tell them that I stood by. This is why my colleagues and I published a public letter calling on Prof. Mor Yosef to join us in protecting the asylum seekers and resign from his position as head of the Immigration Authority. This letter has been signed by hundreds of Israeli physicians, ranging across the entire spectrum of political beliefs.

And now I ask you to please join us. Talk to your congregations; demand that your communities apply whatever pressure they can on the Israeli government to stop this disgrace. Help us to fulfill Maimonides’ Oath: “The eternal providence has appointed me to watch over the life and health of thy creatures.” Amen.

The author, a resident physician at Sheba-Tel Hashomer, is part of a group of physicians who are against deportation of asylum seekers.

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