Who's a refugee?

Israel has to deal with the vexed question of what to do with over 50,000 illegal migrants/asylum seekers/refugees.

Refugees living in Israel (photo credit: AMIR COHEN - REUTERS)
Refugees living in Israel
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN - REUTERS)
In mid-January, some ten thousand Eritrean and Sudanese migrants began what became a month-long grass-roots protest against their treatment by the Israeli authorities.
Their protest was aimed specifically at the recent fourth amendment to the anti-infiltration law passed in mid-December that limited their rights as potential asylum seekers. The amendment resulted in mass detentions in the Negev desert facility of Holot, which the government describes as an open residence, but which migrants and human rights groups see as just another form of imprisonment.
The Supreme Court had previously thrown out as unconstitutional a 2012 amendment allowing for the detention for up to three years of illegal migrants as a deterrence. The latest amendment to the 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Law, exploiting a loophole in the Supreme Court decision, now allows for migrants crossing into Israel through the Egyptian border illegally, or those whose conditional release visas have expired, to be relocated at Holot until they can be deported.
Since many of those placed in Holot can’t be returned to their country of origin because of the danger to their lives there, human rights groups charge that residency in this facility in effect results in indefinite detention.
Human rights organizations have also noted the difficulties in renewing visas are meanwhile growing, with renewal possible only in specific cities and for a few hours each week. Asylum seekers complain of long lines and an entirely inaccessible process of applying for refugee status.
Thousands of migrants working – largely illegally, as busboys, dishwashers, cooks and cleaners, in hotels and restaurants – left their jobs to join the sit-ins and marches held both in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
“No more prison. We are refugees. We need protection,” they chanted, hands held crossed over each other above their heads in a stance that has become the symbol of their struggle, at a disciplined Jerusalem protest that saw a sea of thousands of refugees sitting in the Rose Garden in front of the Knesset.
“If we continue doing this, I believe we will get it. We have to be committed,” one of the demonstration leaders called out to the throng of migrants, which included women and babies in strollers. “We have to stay committed and continue this strike. There is no other way. It is the only way we will be able to get our rights. We are ready to go home tomorrow when the situation there is safe.”
Opposition Knesset Members Erel Margalit from Labor, Nitzan Horowitz and Tamar Zandberg from Meretz and writer David Grossman also spoke in support of the migrants and the need for a proper review system. The migrants had hoped to present a letter to the Knesset but were not allowed in and instead read the letter at the demonstration.
“We are not infiltrators and liars. We continue to say to you: We are refugees… not infiltrators and not criminals. We call on you to sit with us to find a solution that takes into account Israel’s interests and our rights,” they said in the letter. “We demand you respect our rights as refugees.”
The following  week, they were granted permission to enter the Knesset for a hearing before the Committee on Foreign Workers, headed by MK Michal Rosin of Meretz.
Their demands are threefold: 1) to release all asylum seekers from detention; 2) to establish a system to fairly and transparently review all asylum applications; and 3) to safeguard their rights as refugees and human beings.
Some migrants, mainly from Sudan, disheartened by the de facto incarceration in Holot, agreed to the government’s offer of repatriation to their homeland via a third country in return for a grant of a few thousand dollars. According to the Interior Ministry, the number of returning migrants has increased more than tenfold since November, when 63 Africans left, reaching 773 in January.
Amnesty International, however, claims that deportation under this procedure is a violation of international refugee law that prohibits refugees from being returned to places where their lives may be endangered. “Amnesty International has long-standing concerns that Israel’s asylum system lacks transparency, does not offer asylum seekers access to fair proceedings, and is ineffective in ensuring protection,” the organization said in a statement.
Protest leaders adroitly announced they would temporarily suspend the protests following Ariel Sharon’s death on January 11 out of respect for the former prime minister – and also knowing full well that the media would be paying them no mind in the days of mourning. They restarted their protests again in the balmy springlike February weather. They slept under blankets in Levinsky Park in south Tel Aviv at night and marched on embassies and government offices by day.
At a rally on February 13, outside the UN offices in Tel Aviv, they chastised the organization for its lack of action on the issue of asylum seekers in Israel.
The trickle of migrants had slowly grown since 2006, first with refugees escaping the genocide in Darfur and Southern Sudan, and then Eritreans fleeing from the oppressive dictatorship there.
Israel now finds itself with an African migrant population of some 54,000. The poorer south Tel Aviv neighborhoods, around the central bus station, where migrants have largely congregated and which are already socioeconomically weak and with high crime rates, have become a powder keg of tension. Local residents claim they fear increasing crime and harassment from Africans, many of whom have no place to live but in Levinsky Park.
Yohannes Bayu, founder of the African Refugee Development Center and himself a longtime Eritrean refugee, who has been given permanent resident status in Israel, acknowledges the complaints of the local residents, noting that tension in the impoverished neighborhoods has been growing and that crime does exist among the migrants just as it does among the other residents of the neighborhood. Yes, he says, there have been individual incidents of theft. But, he tells The Jerusalem Report, the migrants are captive to a system created by Israel that does not review their status, does not give them permission to work and provides them no alternative other than indefinite incarceration.
Some of the people in the neighborhoods, he says, have felt entitled to take the law into their own hands and many asylum seekers who have been attacked refuse to go to the police out of fear that they will end up being sent to one of the detention facilities holding migrants or to Holot.
“Even before the refugees came here, the neighborhood was like this, with drugs and crime. With the refugees [the problem] got exaggerated. The tension is growing as a result of the pressure on the poor neighborhood,” Bayu says. “But instead of pressuring the government, which is creating the problem, to come up with a solution, they are turning to [blame] the wrong people. What do they expect from refugees who have no work and no food? Where do they expect them to go?”
According to Amnesty International, Eritrea is a country where “grave violations” of human rights take place, including religious and political persecution, disappearances of citizens and the use of torture by the government. In addition, the organization says, survivors from Darfur face continuous persecution and mass murder by the government and armed militias.
“We ran from a bad regime with no freedom of religion or freedom of expression… If we are expelled back there it would endanger our lives. Maybe Israel will deport us. This is a shame for Israel,” Abraham, a 27-year-old Eritrean who has been active in the protests and has lived in Israel for five years, tells The Report, refusing to divulge his family name.
After having served in the Eritrean Army for five years, mainly as forced labor building homes for the privileged, he escaped. Much of his family is dispersed in different countries as they have sought out safety and freedom.
“At least with the protests we have shown to the Israeli people the truth that Israel is not dealing with the issue as it should be. We have shown we are not criminals. Our demonstrations are non-violent. Israel does not see us as asylum seekers, they see us as criminals. If someone has committed a crime in a democratic country, they must have a trial. No one goes without a trial to jail.”
The government hopes that by incarcerating them in detention facilities, their lives will be miserable enough that they will voluntarily accept the government’s offer of a few thousand dollars to be repatriated back to their country of origin, he charges. “If they make my life a misery and [put me] in a hopeless situation, it is better to die in our country with respect and with your family,” says Abraham. “Nobody wants to live away from his country, away from his family.”
Orit Maron of the ASSAF aid organization for refugees and asylum seekers notes that while there are some 54,000 asylum seekers in Israel, there are also some 90,000 tourists who have overstayed their visas, remaining in the country illegally, 60,000 of them from Russia.
“It is not an issue of numbers. I think it is straight out racism and a lack of desire on the part of Israel to understand that they are refugees. Israel has forgotten where it came from.” she tells The Report. “[David] Ben-Gurion pushed for the [ratification of the 1951 UN] Refugee Convention so the World War II situation when refugees were fleeing and countries closed their doors would not happen again, and now Israel is closing its doors. [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s policy is a statement against the basic tenets of Judaism of compassion and seeing the other.”
The term “infiltrators” used by the government is a deliberate act aimed at creating a feeling of imminent threat and invasion when really the people they are referring to are escaping from mass murder and cruel dictatorships, she says. “The government should review each request for asylum and decide individually if they are migrants coming here in search of better economic opportunities or, if they are, as I say, mostly asylum seekers.”
Amid all the protests, in mid-February the Health Ministry quietly opened up a free mental health clinic for migrants, for the first time tacitly acknowledging that many migrants are in need of help because of the kidnappings, torture and rapes suffered during their journey to Israel. Many migrants were abducted and held for ransom in camps in Sinai for long periods before they reached the Israeli border.
In a statement released during the height of the demonstrations, the Foreign Ministry noted that Israel was trying to balance its need to control its borders with the need to protect the human rights of those who enter.
“The sheer numbers and the range of issues raised present a significant challenge for the economic and social services of Israel – whose population is eight million,” the ministry said. “The situation in Israel is much more complex than that of other developed countries. Israel is the only developed country with a land border with Africa, which makes it comparatively more accessible for those who wish to enter. Moreover, due to Israel’s unique geo-strategic situation and the current political instability surrounding its borders, it becomes practically impossible to develop regional cooperative solutions with countries of origin and transit, as done by other developed countries, such as European countries and the US.
“The Population and Immigration Authority, through its Refugee Status Determination unit, has been examining hundreds of demands for asylum, in coordination with UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). The examination is carried out in accordance with Israel’s international legal obligations, based on the UN Refugee Convention (1951). Enforcement is carried out under Israeli law and in conformity with Supreme Court rulings,” the government said.
In their own statement at a press briefing in Geneva on January 10, UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said UNHCR “understands the challenges faced by Israel in managing the reception of migrants and asylum seekers. However, it is important that the treatment of asylum seekers be in line with international refugee and human rights law. All asylum seekers should have access to fair and efficient asylum procedures, as well as efficient means to renew their existing visas.”
Israel is not the only country facing a strain on its economic and social welfare systems due to a growing refugee problem, with asylum seekers from Africa, the Middle East and Asia fleeing their homes to find a safe haven in other countries too, notes Tali Kritzman-Amir, an assistant professor at Tel Aviv University’s Migrant Studies program. She places Israel in the last four places of countries who are dealing with the refugees in a legal and moral way along with Australia, Greece and Italy.
Globally, some 80 percent of Eritrean asylum seekers and over 60 percent of Sudanese asylum seekers are recognized as refugees, she asserts. In Israel, of just over 1,000 asylum requests filed by Eritreans, only 270 have been reviewed, and it was only at the end of January that two of those requests were accepted.
“Other countries hold asylum seekers for a specific period until their refugee determination status is complete or their deportation, which is not the case in Israel. In other [Western] countries, they are either allowed to work and support themselves or are granted benefits like housing,” she tells The Report. “The purpose of the Interior Ministry with the detention here is to deter people and convince them to voluntarily repatriate; [they think] that if they hold them long enough, they will ask to go back to their country of origin.”
Israel’s fear of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers pouring into the country has been forestalled because of the fence erected along the Egyptian border, with the numbers of people crossing over now almost negligible, she says, and yet the government is still reluctant to acknowledge its own legal commitment to those already here. “It is shameful that a country of refugees is now putting people in the same situation we were in,” she asserts.
Israel has been trying to find ways to rid itself of the illegal migrants, mostly to no avail. Recently a third country, Sweden, agreed to take in a group of some 50 Eritreans, mostly women who were victims of human trafficking and torture on their way to Israel through the Sinai Desert and who had been imprisoned in Israel.
In the meantime, says Bayu, the asylum seekers are frustrated by the lack of results of their demonstrations and confused about the detention system. “They can’t differentiate between that and prison. They are determined to find a solution but at the same time the government has hardened its heart,” he says.
“A solution is not only for them, but also for the State of Israel,” he concludes.