Why Israel needs a refugee status determination process

The lack of a working, objective policy to absorb asylum seekers has led to the mistaken overuse of ‘migrant worker’ to classify those who flee persecution in their countries.

Three thousand years ago the Jewish people introduced a revolutionary idea: provide refuge to those escaping slavery and give the former slaves almost full residency rights in the land of Israel (Deuteronomy 23:16-17).
“Infiltrators” and “migrant workers” are terms used today by government officials, policy-makers and the media to describe former slaves and victims of genocide who are crossing our border. These terms are the reason that hundreds have been forcibly returned by the IDF to the Egyptian border patrol that kills or imprisons them. Out of the approximately 25,000 African asylum seekers who have made it here alive since 2007, only around 600 have been granted temporary residency, and far fewer received refugee status, which would protect them from arbitrary deportation and allow them to apply for resettlement in other countries.
How do we know if the Africans who cross our borders are genuine refugees who have fled persecution? First, refugees are willing to knowingly risk their lives to make it here, suggesting their lives are at risk in the countries they are fleeing. Based on different AP reports of African asylum seekers killed by the Egyptian border patrol, at least one out every 200 who attempts to cross the border is killed. This statistic ignores the hundreds more who AP doesn’t find out about. Women are told they may be raped by the Beduins who help them make the journey, but are still willing to risk it. They take birth control pills to, at the very least, avoid forced impregnation – evidence that whatever they face at home is worse than the prospect of likely rape.
Second, university educated men and women – former psychologists, heads of NGOs, teachers, architects and computer programmers in their countries of origin – sacrifice status, income and future prospects, ending up as cleaners or worse if they manage to make it across the fence alive.
They know their job prospects are bad, but they choose to make the journey, strongly suggesting they are refugees.
HERE ARE three examples of refugees who cannot apply for refugee status: I asked an Eritrean why he came. He answered, “To work,” which makes him sound like a migrant worker, not a refugee. I then asked, “What was your job in Eritrea?” He answered, “I was in the military for over 10 years.
I would face imprisonment or execution if I left my job.”
After two of his neighbors were arrested and one killed for “political activity,” he decided to flee.
Another interviewee worked for multinational companies in Congo before the dictatorial regime called for his arrest for political dissidence. While he is a leader in his community here, he now cleans houses for a living.
Rather than coming to find a job, he gave up his career to save his life.
I interviewed a woman who had stopped her secondary education in Khartoum. She had been gang raped by policemen in her house. She fled to Israel, risking her life in the process, although knowing she would be unlikely to continue her education here.
If the choice is between continued persecution, versus persecution during the journey and then, perhaps, freedom and security, most would choose the latter.
In the Torah, there is a logical conclusion that if people are risking their lives to flee their masters, they were probably living a life worse than death when they were slaves, and deserve refuge.
The government must assure that every asylum seeker receives an in-depth interview to determine his status. It is not enough to ask, “Why are you in Israel?” Not only can the asylum seeker lie and claim he is a refugee when he is not, but those who are genuine refugees may answer that they are here to work. Their former “work” was often forced labor with close to no pay, in constant fear of abuse or death due to their ethnicity, religion, gender or political affiliations.
THE NATIONAL Status Granting Body, which conducts the interviews to determine refugee status, systematically interviews only about 15 percent of all asylum seekers, and specifically ones that have the weakest cases. Darfurians, South Sudanese and Eritreans, who have the strongest cases for asylum, are literally turned away at the door. They are almost all left in limbo, renewing their visas every month or three months, without any official status that assures they will not be deported, without any option of family reunification to assure their families’ lives are not at risk.
The rest, which include those who have fled Somalia, are almost all rejected for refugee status by the Ministry of Interior’s Refugee Status Unit which makes the final decision. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of refugees have been deported back to Egypt at the border as soon as they enter Israel, with IDF soldiers told to “interview” asylum seekers, even if the asylum seekers and soldiers do not speak a common language. Based on testimonials from refugees who were not immediately deported and who did manage to stay in Israel, they were never asked by soldiers to explain the circumstances of their leaving their country of origin or Egypt, suggesting the decision process is arbitrary.
Three thousand years ago, Jews were a relatively small people and there were relatively more slaves. But the immediate certainty of abuse or death for the slave, if he was returned, was deemed more important than concerns about the potentially large number of escaped slaves the Jewish people would need to absorb.
Today in Israel, people are being forcibly returned to the countries, militaries and warlords which enslaved them, bringing into question not only our own adherence to international law, but to the very Jewish law and principles upon which the state was founded.
The writer is founder and director of Advocates for Asylum and a graduate student in Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. For information on volunteer opportunities and to read full testimonials of asylum seekers, visit: www.asylumseekers.org.