Israel: A haven for african refugees/asylum seekers?

Israel is not the first country that comes to mind when one talk about issues concerning refugees and asylum seekers from Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia and sub-saharan Africa. And rightly so. In 2002 a meager 322 asylum seekers came to Israel to seek protection. In 2004 and 2005 around 900 arrived annually but in 2009 that number had risen to just over 9000. Last year Israeli authorities claimed that around 10 000 asylum seekers came to Israeli, mainly by way of Sinai. Today it is estimated that Israel hosts 35 000 asylum seekers and with a monthly increase of 500 – 1000 individuals.

Based on these numbers Israel must be an optimal destination for those seeking protection and a fresh start in life? Well…the verdict is mixed. Yes, asylum seekers and refugees can work in Israel. But they are not allowed to, according to Israeli authorities. But this is not enforced. Asylum seekers and refugees who work (without a permit – as they are not granted one) are not covered by the Israeli state health plan, something we will look into a bit more in next installment.

85-90% of asylum seekers are excluded from any refugee status determination. These are those claiming citizenship from Eritrea and Sudan. Eritreans who have fled their home country, the North Korea of Africa, are by definition refugees, prima facie. As for Sudan, the country does not have any diplomatic contact with Israel, a state which it views as a an enemy. Just by entering Israel a Sudanese national would, if he or she was deported or returned to Sudan be in serious risk of being subject to such treatment that he or she would be fulfill the criteria for refugee status (also as Israel views Sudanese as from a hostile country they are routinely put in detention upon arrival to Israel).

And thus if Israel would give each Eritrean or Sudanese asylum seeker a status determination the would have to grant them permit to stay. And consequently they don’t. Instead Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers are granted a temporary visa pending deportation/voluntary return. I should also point out that Israel does not enforce any deportations to Eritrea or Sudan.

As listed in the UNHCR research paper no 205 – Ordered Disorder, the Israeli asylum system employs numerous deterrence strategics to send signal of ‘no-entry’ to individuals who want to apply for asylum or who are planning on entering Israel for that purpose. Those asylum seekers that have the possibility of lodging an asylum claim face the formidable Israeli asylum bureaucracy which seem to aim at making a asylum process unsustainable. Although Israel has ratified the 1951 refugee convention no statutory implementation exists to this day. And there are no plans to draft such a law to be passed by the Knesset. The Israeli minister of interior has recently opened a RSD-unit to process the lodged asylum claims. But the lack of an asylum law and administrative routines adds to the strategy of ordered disorder. And out of 3000 applications for asylum only two (2) is reported to have been approved. Other measure of deterrence are the framing of asylum seekers as economic migrants or infiltrators and the construction of a fence in the Sinai to add another obstacle for asylum seekers to crossing into Israel.

In the next installment I will discuss the risks facing asylum seekers and refugees as they cross the Sinai in order to reach Israel.

About Leif Eriksson

Leif Eriksson has worked in the field of asylum at the Swedish Migration Agency specializing in the Middle East, Schengen and the Dublin Regulation, as Migration Attaché and head of the migration section at the Swedish Embassy in Damascus 2005 - 2008, as a resettlement consultant at the UNHCR branch office in Damascus 2008 - 2009, Consul at the Swedish Consulate General in Jerusalem 2012 - 2013 and associate RSD/RST officer at UNHCR in Beirut 2013 - 2014. He currently lives in Tbilisi, Georgia.
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