Israel setting up special units to deal with African asylum-seekers

State preparing to take over responsibility from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Darfurian refugees 224.8 (photo credit: Haviv Rettig )
Darfurian refugees 224.8
(photo credit: Haviv Rettig )
The state is preparing to take over responsibility from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for examining the requests of Africans crossing the Sinai border into Israel for political asylum. "At this time, [the government] is establishing a special unit whose job it will be to question infiltrators asking for political asylum in Israel," Attorneys Yochi Gnessin and Gilad Shirman informed the High Court of Justice recently. "The unit will conduct a broad and exhaustive examination to determine the eligibility of the applicants for refugee status." Until now, the examinations have been conducted by the Israeli branch of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR.) However, according to government officials, the branch office lacks the manpower to handle the flood of Africans (estimated at about 10,000) that have entered the country illegally over the past year or two. The new unit, which belongs to the Interior Ministry, already has 20 employees and intends to hire more. It is looking for people who speak Arabic, Amharic, and other African languages as well as English. Eighteen of the new employees have already undergone preliminary training according to a curriculum which was worked out in consultation with the UNHCR. Two were sent for a six-week training course in the US. The state also informed the court that the army is preparing and training its own unit, since it is the soldiers who usually come into initial contact with the Africans. The system works as follows: Any infiltrator apprehended at the border by the IDF will be brought to army bases situated in the northern and southern sectors of the Israeli-Egyptian border. There they will undergo initial interrogation by the specially trained soldiers. The soldiers' task will be to determine whether an infiltrator poses a security risk to Israel. This initial detention period may last up to 48 hours and many of those who pass this stage will be sent to the holding prison at Ketziot. Today, most of those sent to Ketziot come from Sudan and Eritrea. While in Ketziot, the special Interior Ministry unit now being established will process all applications for refugee status. Beyond that, it is not clear what will happen. Today, the applications are initially examined by the UNHCR, which sorts them into two categories: One group that doesn't meet the criteria for being granted asylum, and one group that might be eligible. All the applications are then submitted to an advisory committee which screens them again and determines which should be rejected and which accepted. The committee's recommendations are sent to the minister of interior, which makes the final decision. According to Attorney Yonatan Berman, of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, it is not clear whether the government intends to make further changes to the processing procedure. He said his organization supported the move to transfer responsibility for the initial processing stage from the UN to the government, but that he was worried about how the government would handle it. He was also concerned because "the Ministry of Interior is known for its tough treatment of foreigners." Berman confirmed the government's position that it is the government and not the UN which examines requests for asylum in Western countries and that this is the proper way to do it. Even though the UNHRC will not examine the applicants, it will still be involved in the processing procedure. The Israeli examiners will ask the UN to check out facts and assess the truth of the personal stories told by the those seeking asylum, including details about the situation in the applicants' home countries. The state's brief to the High Court came in response to a petition filed by the Hotline for Migrant Workers against the state's use of "hot return" - forcing Africans back over the Egyptian border within the first 72 hours of their arrival in Israel. Last month, the Knesset passed in first reading a government bill legalizing "hot return," even though it does not offer those who cross the border any opportunity to apply for refugee status as required by international law. In the brief, it also informed the court that it had recently sent back two Egyptians who had crossed the border illegally, in accordance with the "hot return" policy. This was apparently done at the request of the Egyptian government.