Photo: ActiveStills

Israel is home to around 30,000 asylum-seekers who arrived in Israel from Africa through Sinai. The State and most Israeli media outlets label those people as “infiltrators”, a term originally used in the 1950s to denote Palestinian refugees who entered Israel at first to salvage their belonging and work their lands and then to commit sabotage and terror attacks. The use of this term is intended to portray asylum-seekers as a security threat. Asylum-seekers is the legal term used to denote people who left their country and arrived to another country and declared that they will be in danger if returned to their homeland. The review of the individual asylum claim of the asylum-seeker is the process of examining whether the person is a refugee or not. However, the State finding a person to be a refugee or not has only a declarative role.

A refugee, as stated in the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, is a person “who owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

92% of asylum-seekers in Israel hail from Eritrea (73%) and Sudan (19%). Both are dictatorships that brutally repress their populations and violate their human rights. Sudanese citizens who live in Israel escaped genocide and ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the Arab Khartoum regime against African (non-Arab) tribes located in western Sudan (Darfur) and southern Sudan (the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile region). Citizens of Eritrea flee a country with no civilian judiciary, a country that never held democratic elections and whose citizens are obligated to perform endless national service. This service is unlike the service performed in other armies and includes performing various forms of hard labor for the benefit of the regime, including: mining, paving roads and agricultural work. Eritreans who defect from national service are considered traitors and if they are caught, they are tortured and sometimes executed or tortured to death. Despite the severe punishments for defector, each month over 1,000 soldiers defect from the national service and flee the country.

Israel maintains a policy of “temporary protection” or “delay of removal” for Sudanese and Eritrean nationals, so as to be in compliance with the non-refoulement principle. The principle, the heart of the Refugee Convention, forbids states to deport people to a place where their lives or liberty is likely to be endangered. However, asylum-seekers from those countries who are not in detention were not eligible to file asylum requests until late 2013. As of July 2016, only two Eritrean nationals and one Sudanese citizen were recognized as refugees in Israel, eliciting criticism from the High Court of Justice.

Israel grants asylum-seekers a visa that only gives them the right not to be deported from Israel until their deportation is possible. On these visas, a Ministry of Interior stamp reads: “This permit is not a work permit”, but because of the State made an obligation to the High Court of Justice, employers of asylum seekers are not fined. Because many employers are unaware of this, asylum-seekers have to make do with temporary jobs and are willing to work for less than minimum wage. Israel makes it difficult for asylum-seekers to work and bars them for access to medical and welfare services because it believes that the “infiltrators” come to Israel to work and harming their ability to live in dignity in Israel will deter more of them from coming and would encourage those who are already in Israel to leave. In practice, until the construction of the border fence with Egypt was completed in 2012, African asylum-seekers kept entering Israel in the hope of finding refuge here.

Asylum-seekers in Israel live mostly in areas where the cost of living is comparatively low, meaning, in the economic periphery of Israel: the neighborhoods of southern Tel Aviv, impoverished neighborhoods in Jerusalem, Eilat, Arad and Ashqelon. Asylum-seekers often live in very crowded apartments in those areas due to their low wages and because apartment owners exploit the fact that many landlords are unwilling to rent apartments to Africans and raise the prices. One can find apartments where ten asylum-seekers live in just one room. The crowdedness that characterizes the living conditions of asylum-seekers increases the burden on the already-poor infrastructure of the impoverished areas where refugees live, increasing the anguish of the Israeli residents of those neighborhoods.

In addition to depriving asylum-seekers of social and economic rights, Israeli officials, even at the highest levels, are waging an incitement campaign against the refugees that is designed to justify the State’s treatment of them, which differs widely from the practice of other nations. Asylum-seekers are presented as “work infiltrators” who came to Israel to work, and not as humans who were persecuted and whose lives will be in danger if they are deported from Israel. Government officials struggle to explain why these people, who according to them are illegal work migrants, are not deported from the country as Israel routinely does with undocumented migrants. In addition, ministers and elected politicians present refugees as criminals and spreaders of disease based on racial stereotypes. The asylum-seekers, who make up about 0.5% of Israel’s population, are also presented as a demographic and a security threat.

After Israel realized that depriving asylum-seekers of basic rights does not deter more of them from coming, along with constructing a fence along the entire Egypt-Israel border, the Netanyahu government pushed through an amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law (originally used against terrorists in the 1950s). Under the amended law, which was enacted in June 2012, all asylum-seekers who entered Israel were jailed for a minimum period of three years, except in extraordinary humanitarian cases. This law was voided by the High Court of Justice in a ruling issued on September 2013, following a petition of human rights organizations, including the Hotline. In response, the government rushed to pass a new amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law. Under the second version of the law, asylum-seekers who enter Israel after the law came into force (December 2013), will be jailed for a year. After a year in jail without trial, the asylum-seeker will be transferred to an internment camp for asylum-seekers that the state calls an “open center for residents”, located across the road from the prisons for refugees, near the border with Egypt. Along with the new arrivals, any asylum-seeker already in Israel can be jailed in this “open” detention camp called “Holot”. This law, too, was voided by the High Court of Justice following a petition by human rights organizations, including the Hotline. This is the first time in Israeli history that the High Court twice voided the same law. To bypass this ruling, the Knesset passed a third version of the law. Under this version, which is currently in force, asylum-seekers will be imprisoned for three months after entering Israel. Following this period of imprisonment without trial, the asylum-seekers are transferred to the Holot detention camp for a period of 20 months. Since the border fence has halted nearly all unauthorized crossings into Israel, the overwhelming majority of the detainees in Holot are asylum-seekers who’ve lived in Israel for years and were ordered to report to detention when they came to renew their conditional release visa at the Ministry of Interior. Asylum-seekers are torn from their lives, their jobs, their friends, and sent to live in a detention camp in the middle of the desert without ever being accused of a crime. The purpose of the law is to coerce the asylum-seekers into “voluntarily” leaving Israel, since Israel cannot deport them by force. In August 2015, the Israeli High Court of Justice issued a ruling in response to a petition by Israeli human rights organizations, including the Hotline, which reduced the detention period in Holot from 20 to 12 months.