Israel and the refugees

The Jewish state must be more compassionate in its policies towards asylum seekers.

African migrant refugee infiltrator_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
African migrant refugee infiltrator_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), at the end of 2010 there were more than 15 million refugees around the globe. Israel has recently become a part of this world-wide phenomenon, as in recent years thousands of Africans have entered the country through its Southern border, asking for asylum.
With Israel’s status as a “Jewish and democratic state,” one could expect it to be generous toward asylum seekers. After all, the 1951 Refugee Convention, which Israel was quick to sign and ratify, was enacted as a direct reaction to World War II atrocities, particularly the Holocaust.
The facts, however, show differently. Israel indeed refrains from deporting asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan – consisting of about 85% of the total number of such peopel in the country. It refuses, however, to process these nationals’ applications for asylum, and is satisfied with granting them a temporary right to sojourn in the country, without the right to work, or any other social rights. An exception is the Olmert government’s ad hoc decision from 2007 to grant 600 Darfuries – who fled from genocide – temporary resident status, which has to be renewed every six months.
What about other nationals? After a long battle by the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) – an Israeli refugee-founded NGO which took the Ministry of Interior to court under the Freedom of Information Act – it became apparent that Israel routinely rejects 99.9% of asylum applications. Between January 2008 and May 2011, Israel granted refugee status to only nine individuals, out of thousands of applicants. Moreover, while the Ministry of Interior has declaredthat it respects recommendations on status determination made by UNHCR, the ARDC case revealed that Israel respects the UNHCR predominantly when it gives negative recommendations regarding refugee status. Indeed, in all such cases, Israel adopted the recommendation, and refused the application. However, when UNHCR makes positive recommendations, Israel’s inclination is quite different – only 15% of UNHCR’s positive recommendations are acted on by the Israeli authorities.
The fact that the Israeli Ministry of Interior refused to reveal the aforementioned information until it was forced to do so by court order proves that even Israeli civil servants realize something is deeply wrong with the way Israel deals with people seeking refuge. It is legitimate for Israel to express concern – given its geographic location – over the possibility of large numbers of refugees entering its territory. Israel might also be justified in looking for ways to resettle such refugees in other countries. It is, however, illegitimate to simply refuse well-founded applications, as the outcome might be the return of people to places where they face persecution. Given the Jewish people’s history, a more compassionate approach could be and should be expected.

The writer is the academic instructor of the Refugee Rights Program at Tel Aviv University. He also represented ARDC before the Jerusalem District Court in its petition against the Israeli Ministry of Interior.