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Myths, facts and suggestions: Asylum seekers in Israel

‘Asylum seekers’ are often confused with ‘migrant workers’ in Israel. Here is an info-sheet written by two experts in the field that explains the facts about the new faces in Israeli society, and suggests how the country should cope.

By Yonatan Berman and Oded Feller

‘They’re not refugees, they’re migrant workers’

More than 60 percent of the asylum seekers in Israel are Eritrean, and more than 25 percent are Sudanese – together, that’s 85 percent of the asylum seekers in the country. Israel has not examined the asylum requests of any Eritreans and Sudanese nationals.

But Israel does not deport Eritrean and Sudanese nationals. Indeed, in the absence of diplomatic ties, it would be difficult to deport someone to Sudan. But Israel enjoys full ties with Eritrea, such that there is no logistical barrier to the deportation of all Eritreans (who constitute the vast majority of asylum seekers in Israel). If they are all migrant workers, as various officials claim, why not deport them? The answer is simple: their lives in the country of origin are at risk. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon admitted as much in a recent Knesset hearing, explaining why returning Eritreans to their country is not on the agenda: “Eritrea has a regime described by the entire international community as a regime that does not protect human rights, and someone returning there is at risk – including risk of death.” Israel thus meets its commitment to the Refugee Convention to refrain from returning refugees to a place where their lives would be in danger. It is thus also abiding by UNHCR guidelines prohibiting the return of Eritrean asylum seekers.

The rate of recognition in the world for Eritrean asylum seekers is 84 percent. The global rate of recognition for Sudanese asylum seekers is 64 percent.

Is it possible that the liars are only coming to Israel?

They themselves say that they are coming to work”

The only question that asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan are asked by the Population Authority upon arrival to Israel is, “Why did you come?” Many answer that they came to work. However, that is not the method by which asylum applications are verified. The relevant question would be , “Why did you leave your country, and what will happen to you if you return?” If those questions were asked, many would be found eligible for refugee status.

Asylum seekers come from poor countries. Even if their motivation to come to Israel stems from this fact, and from the desire to improve their lives, this doesn’t mean that they are not refugees and not eligible for international protection.

Israel isn’t their first country of asylum. They should stay in Egypt”

International law does not require asylum seekers to ask for refugee status in the first country to which they flee. If this was the rule, third world countries– which already receive the majority of the world’s refugees – would be the only legitimate destinations. Countries are permitted to sign burden-sharing agreements regarding the intake of refugees, and to return refugees to countries of asylum where they had already resided. This is only legitimate if the receiving country is a safe country in which refugees enjoy protection.

Israel has no such agreement with Egypt, and Egypt isn’t a safe country and does not have asylum procedures; it does not enable free access to UNCHR and the International Committee of the Red Cross; it arrests asylum seekers; it deports asylum seekers to their countries of origin; it does not allow asylum seekers to work to support themselves; it does not give their children access to education.

The residents of South Tel Aviv and Eilat are suffering”

That’s true. But they are not the only ones. Asylum seekers also live in Ashdod, Jerusalem, Arad and elsewhere.

Asylum seekers live in Israel with deportation orders – which cannot be implemented – hanging over their heads. Their employment in Israel is predicated on the government’s agreement to refrain from enforcing an employment ban against their employers. They are not eligible for any form of aid. Their futures are obscured by fog. Government policies that prevent asylum seekers from reasonable work conditions – along with access to housing, health services, welfare and education – leave them impoverished.

As a result, high concentrations of asylum seekers have cropped up in poor areas, where some can afford shelter. The crowding contributes to already difficultl conditions, resulting in what has become an unbearable situation.

Asylum seekers do not choose to live in these conditions. Most of them are productive people. Many are educated. Government intervention to ensure their rights and assist them in housing, work, health, welfare and education would help rescue them from poverty and decrease the burden on poor areas. If the massive funds the government spends on the unnecessary detention of asylum seekers were diverted to help improve the infrastructure in the areas in which they live, the resident would no doubt greatly benefit as well.

Israel doesn’t need to help all the poor people in the world”

That’s true, but Israel does need to do its part in sharing the burden. In Israel, there are more than 45,000 asylum seekers. Most Western countries today deal with large numbers – but they’re not alone. States that border countries from which refugees flee are the ones who carry the heaviest burden, and they are in far worse economic shape than Israel. Many Sudanese asylum seekers are in Chad. Many Eritrean asylum seekers are in Ethiopia. Even Israel’s neighbors – Jordan and Syria – have received hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees in recent years. Israel is no different from other states. It is a strong country with strong institutions, and can handle the numbers of asylum seekers arriving.

There is a limit to the number of refugees you can take”

The Refugee Convention does not enable countries to set quotas of refugees. No quota can supersede the prohibition against returning people to where their lives would be at risk.

We’ll build a fence to prevent their entry”

Building a fence is allowed, but it won’t do away with Israel’s obligation to receive those whose lives are in danger.

We’ll build a huge prison, and when it’s established we won’t let them work”

The world’s largest prison for immigrants, slated for construction in the Negev, will hold between 10 and 15 thousand people. It will be an oppressive refugee camp, and won’t solve anything. There are already more than 45,000 refugees in Israel, and by the time it is established, there are likely to be more. The prison will quickly be filled to capacity. If the many asylum seekers who remain outside its walls cannot work, they’ll starve. Moreover, the detainees will ultimately be released, in order to make room for new arrivals. Except for abusing asylum seekers and their children, nothing will be achieved. Estimates show that Israel will spend hundreds of millions of shekels on the facility, and more than a billion a year to maintain it – all for nothing.

So what do you suggest?”

Instead of spending massive amounts on a detention facility, the government should invest in a mechanism for examining the asylum claims of Eritreans and Sudanese nationals, in order to protect the rights of those eligible for asylum and improve the infrastructure of impoverished areas. Whoever is eligible for protection will be recognized as a refugee. Whoever isn’t will be deported.

The situation in South Sudan has very slowly improved (though it appears to be deteriorating again), and some of its citizens have returned there. Hopefully, the situation in Eritrea and Sudan will similarly improve in coming years, enabling their citizens to return home. Israel should use its diplomatic channels to work toward this goal.

However, in the meanwhile, Israel should accept, like many other Western states, that it must appropriately deal with large numbers of asylum seekers. It must accept the reality that many of them will not be leaving Israel anytime soon.

Yonatan Berman is the director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the Academic Center of Law and Business. Attorney Oded Feller is director of the Immigration and Residency Project at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. This post originally appeared in Hebrew on their blog, Laissez Passer.

This post was translated by Noa Yachot 



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    1. Aaron

      I’ve got another question. I walk through Naveh Sha’anan on my way to and from work, and the ratio of African men to women I see is literally about 20 to one. I see very few African children. (Almost all the people I see are African; often, I’m the only white person in sight.)
      My question is, What is the ratio of men to women among African asylum seekers (or whatever you want to call them) as a whole? If it’s similar to what I see from walking through Naveh Sha’anan, and if they’re here because “their lives in the country of origin are at risk,” then why so few women and children? I’m asking this honestly, not as a “gotcha” question.

      Reply to Comment
    2. hollowvanities

      “Israel is no different from other states.”

      Who said that?! Order a public referendum on this statement in Israel, and you will be pleasantly appalled by its result.

      The core ideology of Zionism is based on denying the above statement. Otherwise, Israel would have been a paradise for its citizens long years ago.

      Reply to Comment
      • Fredy

        Yes, you are right, Zionism dictates Israel a unique country. But in the context of this article, Israel shares responsibility and has capability of other refugee receiving states, thus ” no different from other states” strictly in this sense.

        Reply to Comment
    3. AYLA

      Aaron–good question. that has a lot to do with relationship to public space, particularly among the muslim population; the women are here, they’re just inside. there are so many children here, too, many of them Hebrew speaking at this point, though from what I know, I’d imagine that fewer and fewer are surviving the journey, or making it as far as Israel.
      Their lives in their countries of origin are definitely at risk. A dear friend of mine is someone I actually met when he was a refugee here from Eritrea. He’s like the 1% when it comes to refugees: he escaped Eritrea with an acceptance letter to a masters program in the U.S. in his hand. He’s now in the U.S. with asylum along with his wife and children who left later, once he had a safe place for them, but his story is, I think, the only one like it. Before leaving eritrea, he endured torture under Eritrea’s dictatorship and likely would have been murdered had he stayed. Some big percentage of African refugees here (my memory is telling me 60%?) are Eritrean. I can’t use his name here because the government could go after his parents and siblings.
      Berman and Feller–thanks so much for the post. I only skimmed, but enough to see you’re debunking the popular myths. Publish it in the JPost, now.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Carl

      Aaron I’d guess at some similar reasons as to over here in the UK.
      Whilst many asylum seekers are professionals so can afford the documents, travel costs, etc. to come as entire families or couples, many more can afford to only send one person from their family. The idea being that they can earn, send money back home and if they get leave to remain, legally bring their families over. When you think that patriarchal views of the male as the breadwinner prevail in most of the world, the people who are carrying the entire family’s hopes are likely to be young males. In the UK you see far less homeless Iranians for example as a high percentage of them are well qualified professionals with money in the bank. Inevitably, the visible ones are the poorest.
      That said, Italy has a huge amount of women migrants who work as prostitutes for years to pay their trafficker’s debt off. Watch the short documentary “Nigeria: Sex, Lies and Black Magic” from the ‘Unreported World’ series to see quite how bleak the situation is when its mainly women visible.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Shaun

      “…Egypt isn’t a safe country and does not have asylum procedures; it does not enable free access to UNCHR and the International Committee of the Red Cross; it arrests asylum seekers; it deports asylum seekers to their countries of origin; it does not allow asylum seekers to work to support themselves; it does not give their children access to education…” So Israeli’s are better than Egyptians? That’s seriously Prejudicial. Egypt is allowed to do what it wants with regards to refugees and so is Israel.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Shaun

      Do you have a map? see how far it is from Eretria, Sudan and now the Ivory Coast? There are many closer countries that a desperate refugee can flee to… unless you are not so desperate and instead will got the extra distance for a better economic situation…

      Reply to Comment
    7. Anna

      @Aaron. Reaching Israel is very difficult and involves lots of hardships. People are raped, tortured and abused in Sinai. Only the strongest can make this journey. These are the young men. The weakest refugee populations, especially children, rarely make it so far.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Anna

      @Shaun.Actually Israel cannot do “what it wants” as it has singened the Refugee Convention.

      A refugee, however, is human being who can do what he wants. There is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to get to a country where they actually have some hope for a better life. The weakest only make it to refugee camps in neighboring countries (if at all), where conditions can be so bad that their lives are still at risk.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Please

      They’re economic migrants. They came uninvited & are not wanted. Israel can do whatever is necessary to remove them.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Yossi

      There is a difference between people “whose lives are at risk” and asylum seekers. YES, accept people who seek asylum because of religious, tribal, political persecution. Most of the others whose lives are at risk are here because “their lives are at risk” because they have no work. BTW how dos a person whose life is at risk pay smugglers?? Accepting the economic migrants will only make the possibility of the REAL asylum to arrive here harder.

      Reply to Comment
    11. The refugees who arrive in Israel have been through hell – in their country of origin and on their journeys through Africa, gang-raped, shot, tortured; hungry, alone, without husbands, mothers, fathers, children – many will never see their families again — physical and emotional despair. The ones who arrive are the strongest, and many arrive broken, never to be remade.

      ‘They ask me “how did you get here?” Can’t you see it on my body? The Libyan desert red with immigrant bodies, the Gulf of Aden bloated, the city of Rome with no jacket. I hope the journey meant more than miles because all of my children are in the water. I thought the sea was safer than the land. I want to make love, but my hair smells of war and running and running. I want to lay down, but these countries are like uncles who touch you when you’re young and asleep. Look at all these borders, foaming at the mouth with bodies broken and desperate. i’m the colour of hot sun on the face, my mother’s remains were never buried. I spent days and nights in the stomach of a truck; I did not come out the same. Sometimes it feels like someone else is wearing my body.’ — Warsan Shire, Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Centre).

      Reply to Comment
    12. aristeides

      The Jews fleeing the Nazis came across the borders uninvited and unwanted, a fact that their descendants seem to have forgotten.

      Reply to Comment
    13. good halpe ase pilesssssssssss eritryan p

      Reply to Comment
    14. wilson

      do u have the history of ww2 hitlers regime and what hapened the jewish history changed its way men refuggee we will stuggle other ways

      Reply to Comment
    15. Prometheus

      “A refugee, however, is human being who can do what he wants.”
      Human beings have absolutely no right to do what they want – never had and never will.
      Prisons everywhere are filled with people who though that they could do what they want.
      “There is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to get to a country where they actually have some hope for a better life.”
      Each and every responsible government knows that it is not truth, which is why only real life threats as war of famine are considered legitimate reasons to seek refuge and only until these threats exists.
      BTW, you are allowing one group of people to do what they want, while denying other the same right – looks like double-standard.

      Reply to Comment
    16. Belinda Roux

      I am in serious danger I have been a victim of the Mafia and a Satanic system in our society. I have been threatened that I could be framed or killed at any time.
      I am desperate to get to Israel for my safety. I ask for an e mail address to where I can send more information. I have suffered greatly. I have been assaulted, shot at, tyre slashed, illegally arrested 3 times. I have no criminal record. I suffered Police brutality. My children were kidnapped twice. I have ben a victim of fraud, so much money has been stolen from me. My life has been in danger many times. My car has also been tampered with. I have lost so much. I have documentary evidence of my claims. I have suffered poisoning more than twice. I believe I should be in Israel for my safety. That is where God wants me. I am pro Israel.
      I have been victimized in many ways. My house and car has been vandalised. My car was tampered with causing poisonous gasses to leak into the car cabin. I have been abused and there was an attempt to strangle me.
      Please help me to get asylum to Israel. I have no money for a plane ticket as I have been stolen from so many times.

      Please all me in South Africa 0734640048

      Belinda Roux

      16 Park Drive Mansions
      24 Park Drive
      Port Elizabeth
      South Africa

      Reply to Comment