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Asylum Seekers from Eritrea and Sudan in Israel – December 2017

According to the most recent data provided by the Israeli Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration at the Ministry of Interior (MOI), about 35,000 asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan who entered Israel through Egypt, and are therefore regarded as “infiltrators” by the MoI, currently live in Israel.  Only 300 asylum seekers have entered Israel via Egypt since 2013, and not a single one did in 2017.

The asylum seekers’ official status and Israel’s non-removal policy

The asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea are staying in Israel legally. Israel has adopted a non-removal policy and applies the principle of “non-refoulement” with regard to these asylum seekers, since they will face life-threatening persecution in their home countries.     The 1951 Refugee Convention, which was signed and ratified by Israel, prohibits the repatriation, deportation, and legal prosecution of asylum seekers, even if they had entered their country of refuge illegally. Therefore, Israel gives asylum seekers “conditional release” visas under article 2(A)(5) of the Entry of Israel Law, which they must renew in Bnei Brak or Eilat on a monthly or bimonthly basis.

A dysfunctional asylum system

Up until 2013 the State of Israel denied Eritrean and Sudanese nationals the possibility to file asylum applications, and simply refrained from deporting them. Starting late 2013 the state formally began assessing asylum application, but the current assessment procedure is inefficient and unfavorable. The office to which applications are submitted is inaccessible, and applicants have to wait for months before they can file their applications. Out of the 13,764 asylum applications submitted by July 2017, only 10 people were given refugees status, whilst thousands of applications were rejected without assessment. Israel has the lowest recognition rate in the West (less than one percent!), standing in stark contrast with the high average rates of recognition in the rest of the world – 87% for Eritrean and 63% for Sudanese nationals – a fact which attests to the unfavorable nature of the assessment procedure. As of today, 7,282 asylum applications are still pending decision, with many applicants awaiting decision for over three years. Moreover, thousands of asylum seekers who have already filled their applications cannot submit them, as only a single office in which applications can be filed operates in Israel, and admit a few tens of applications per day.

The strife of south Tel Aviv neighbourhoods

From the time asylum seekers first started entering Israel to the completion of the fence across the Egyptian border in 2012, tens of thousands of asylum seekers have been sent to south Tel Aviv in buses by the authorities. An extensive and detailed report issued by the State Comptroller in 2014 firmly states that the situation in the neighbourhoods of south Tel Aviv consistently worsens, and that the fault lies with the government, which neglects and disavows these neighbourhoods in every respect, and particularly in its inability of handling the overcrowding caused by the presence of foreign nationals, including the asylum seekers.

In the three and a half years since the Comptroller’s report was published, the government refused to invest its time and resources in anything but a populist attack on the asylum seekers. The welfare of the residents of south Tel Aviv cannot be improved by abusing refugees – it can only be worsened! By denying asylum seekers work permits and fundamental rights, the government puts a heavier burden on the backs of the original residents. It is the government’s responsibility to invest in education, welfare, health, infrastructure, transport and housing in these areas, for the benefit of all their inhabitants. Giving the asylum seekers work permits and access to health and welfare services will also facilitate their natural dispersion throughout the country, and relieve them of their dependence of the scant welfare services designated to them in south Tel Aviv.

Detention in the Holot facility

The amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law passed in February 2016 determines that the period of detention in the facility may not exceed 12 months. About 1,200 asylum seekers are currently held in the detention facility, which can hold up to 3,360 asylum seekers. The construction of the facility cost the state over half a billion NIS, and according to Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan, its maintenance costs up to 240 million NIS a year. The stated purpose of the Holot detention facility was to pressure the asylum seekers to leave Israel. Today it is evident that the facility did not achieve this purpose: when given the choice between detention and the continuation of their flight and homelessness, many asylum seekers prefer detention.

Deportation to third countries – Rwanda and Uganda

Israel puts heavy pressure on the asylum seekers to “voluntarily” depart, namely to “third countries” Uganda and Rwanda. The MoI assures the refugees that they are headed towards a safe country, in which they will be given a legal status, and will be able to make a living and file asylum applications. However, hundreds of testimonies by people who departed Israel “voluntarily” reveal the difficult reality faced by asylum seekers in these countries: they are exploited and humiliated; they are forced to give away the travel documents they were issued in Israel, and their money is robbed from them, or given as bribe to the police in order to avoid arrest; they are not given a legal status and are forced to continue their journey, some fall victim to traffickers, some to ISIS; and many attempt to reach Europe and die on the journey.

In August 2017 the Supreme Court decided that Eritrean and Sudanese nationals who have not filed asylum applications or whose applications have been rejected, that is to say, only persons determined not to be refugees – can be deported to Rwanda. As noted above, Israel evades its moral and legal obligations and does not operate a functioning asylum system in which asylum applications can be submitted and decided. The actualization of this policy will therefore enable the indiscriminate deportation of African refugees. Furthermore, in spite of the State’s promise to the Court that the asylum seekers will be given legal status and will be able to apply for asylum in Rwanda, and that government representatives will maintain contact with them to guarantee their safety, the testimonies of asylum seekers who left Israel to these countries tell a completely different story.

The agreements with Rwanda

The agreement with Rwanda discusses at the Supreme Court requires that asylum seekers will not be forcibly deported. However, it has recently been reported that Prime Minister Netanyahu has amended the agreement with Rwanda; the amendment allows for the forced deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda, and stipulates that Israel will pay Rwanda $5,000 for each asylum seeker it admits. In contrast with these reports, Rwanda’s Foreign Minister stated that no agreement has been signed between Israel and Rwanda, and that the agreement in discussion only concerns asylum seekers who depart Israel voluntarily.  The Prime Minister not only boasts about an agreement that has not been signed yet, and whose provisions are yet to be determined, but also claims that this agreement meets the demands of the Supreme Court – in spite of the fact that the court never examined the agreement in question.

The amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law, 2017:

According to the last amendment, the temporary orders relating to the operation of the Holot facility should be extended by three months only, and not by three years, as the previous temporary order demands (see article 5(3) of the Bill; article 8 of the temporary order). Since the government of Israel admits that the Holot facility is expensive and unnecessary, the facility should be closed immediately, and the temporary order on this matter should not have been extended. A further amendment put forward by the Bill intensifies the geographical restrictions imposed on asylum seekers (article 1 of the Bill, article 32(20) of the temporary order), extending them to individuals who were not detained and released from Holot. Furthermore, the Bill suggests that stricter penalties should be imposed on employers who hire asylum seekers without adhering to these restrictions.

Whereas asylum seekers should be encouraged to leave the neighbourhoods of south Tel Aviv and other disadvantaged areas, this should not be done by violent punitive means, but by providing assistance and incentives, both to the asylum seekers and to local authorities and employers who would agree to accept them. We should not repeat the mistake of transferring the asylum seekers to other disadvantaged neighbourhoods. The dispersion of the refugees must go hand in hand with genuine support of the receiving cities and neighbourhoods. Similarly, it should account for the fact that a transitional period is required in order for an individual to change his or her place of habitat and work, and that some cases involve families with school-aged children, who should be allowed to complete the school year before transferring to another city.

The solutions are simple and feasible:


  1. Direct investment in south Tel Aviv neighbourhoods – the government should invest in infrastructure in the neighbourhoods of south Tel Aviv, and strengthen the welfare, health, education and law enforcement mechanisms in these neighbourhoods. South Tel Aviv has been neglected by national and local authorities for a long time; it is dilapidated, impoverished, and swarming with brothels and drug dealers. The residents of these neighbourhoods deserve a respectful government policy, instead of more empty promises;
  2. Encouraging the geographic dispersion of asylum seekers – seeing as no new asylum seekers are entering Israel through the Egyptian border, the government should act to disperse the asylum seekers already living in Israel throughout the country, by issuing working permits, cancelling the fees and restrictions on employers, encouraging employers to hire asylum seekers instead of importing migrant workers, promoting initiatives that facilitate the employment of asylum seekers outside of Tel Aviv, and providing basic health and welfare services to the asylum seeker population throughout Israel;
  3. A genuine and rigorous examination of asylum applications – The dysfunction of Israel’s asylum system is not the outcome of bumbling mistakes, but of deliberate policy. Asylum seekers must be allowed to submit their applications, and these applications should be examined in good-faith and in accordance with global standards. The fact that Israel has the lowest refugee recognition rates in the West (less than one percent!) must not be reconciled with any longer.
  4. Resisting the incarceration of innocent asylum seekers – the “Holot” detention facility must be shut down immediately.

Physicians for Human Rights – Israel | Hotlie for Refugees and Migrant | Association for Civil Rights in Israel | Kav Laoved | ARDC | Assaf – Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel