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Israel doesn’t need to deport refugees to make them leave

Six ways the Israeli government is intentionally making the lives of asylum seekers unbearable.

Since 2008, the Israeli government has been implementing several policies whose purpose is to make the lives of asylum-seekers miserable, in the words of former Israeli Minister of Interior, and to coerce them to leave Israel. Israeli and international law prohibits the state from deporting asylum-seekers to their countries of origin, so instead, Israel adopted policies that will compel asylum-seekers to leave without forcibly deporting them.

1. Denial of Basic Rights: Since 2008, asylum-seekers who reside in Israel receive a 2(A)(5), “conditional release” visa. This document does not grant its holders any rights other than the right to stay in Israel, until deportation is possible. Asylum-seekers are not entitled to welfare services of medical treatment, except in cases of emergency. While asylum-seekers are not allowed to work in Israel, they do work, after the Israeli government committed before the High Court not to fine the employers of asylum-seekers. Because their visa states “This permit is not a work permit”, many Israelis are reluctant to employ asylum-seekers and as a result, asylum-seekers work mostly for minimum wage or even less.

2. Economic Sanctions: The Israeli government adopted a number of policies to make it difficult for asylum-seekers to find employment and decrease their salaries. Recently, the Israeli Tax Authority began collecting the 20% foreign workers tax from employers of asylum-seekers. The tax was previously collected only from employers of migrant workers who are invited to work in Israel. Asylum-seekers, however, are not entitled to the tax breaks of migrant workers or residents, so they pay a larger share of their low salary in taxes. In the 2014 Economic Arrangements Law formulated by the previous government before it disbanded without passing it, the state planned on increasing the tax on employers of asylum-seekers from 20% to 30%. Many employers illegally deduct the 20% tax from the salaries of asylum-seekers.

משפחה - קרדיט לsteven winston
Eritrean family in Israel. Photo courtesy of Steven Winston

The 2014 version of the Anti-Infiltration Law includes provisions, which are yet to be implemented as they require the formulation of new regulations, which further cut into the salaries of asylum-seekers. Under the law, employers of asylum-seekers will have to place 16% of the asylum-seekers’ pay in a deposit instead of earmarking that money for severance pay, pension and other benefits all other workers in Israel are entitled to. In addition, 20% of the salary after taxes of asylum-seekers will be placed in that deposit. Asylum-seekers will be able to collect the deposit only upon leaving Israel. This means that asylum-seekers will be denied the right to pension, severance pay and other benefits as long as they reside in Israel.

3. No Chance of Receiving Refugee Status: Refugee status in Israel entitles its holder to welfare and medical services, as well as the right to work. Due to the unfairness of the Israeli asylum system, the likelihood that an asylum-seeker will be able to escape his status devoid of rights is close to zero. The system of examining asylum claims in Israel is very different from that of other Western countries. The purpose of Israel’s asylum system is to reject as many people as possible under various pretenses. Until 2013, Israel prevented Eritrean and Sudanese nationals, who make up 92% of asylum-seekers in Israel, from submitting individual asylum claims. The result is the lowest recognition rate of refugees in the Western world: in the first four years during which Israel’s asylum system has been managed solely by the Ministry of Interior (2009-2013), only 0.15% of asylum requests received a positive response. The recognition rate of Eritreans is 0.4% (four Eritreans received refugee status out of 1,001 whose requests have been answered). The recognition rate of Sudanese nationals as refugees is 0% – not even one Sudanese citizen received refugee status in Israel, although over 3,100 Sudanese have filed asylum claims since 2013. By comparison, in the first half of 2014, 84.3% of Eritreans worldwide received refugee status or complementary protection and 56.6% of Sudanese were recognized as refugees or granted complementary protection. (See table 9)

4. Prolonged Administrative Detention: Starting June 2012, Israel began implementing a policy of jailing asylum-seekers for prolonged periods of time without trial near the border with Egypt. This policy has been struck down, twice, by the High Court of Justice, but the government passed a third version of the law to be able to jail asylum-seekers. The High Court is yet to rule on the petition filed by Israeli human rights NGOs against the current version of the law. Under the 2014 amendment, asylum-seekers who’ve lived in Israel for years are ordered to report to 20 months of detention without trial in the Holot facility, which is managed by the Israeli Prison Services. After this period of detention, asylum-seekers would be released back into Israel. Currently, only men without small children or wives in Israel, who’ve entered over four years ago, are jailed in Holot. The detainees must sleep in the facility, take part in a daily head count and they are forbidden to work outside of the facility.

מתקן הכליאה חולות סמוך לגבול עם מצרים. צילום באדיבות ActiveStills
Holot detention facility in the Negev desert, close to the border with Egypt. Photo courtesy of ActiveStills

5. Abuse at Ministry of Interior Offices: The Israeli Ministry of Interior obligates asylum-seekers to renew their visas every one to two months. Without visas, asylum-seekers cannot work and may be jailed in Saharonim prison, if caught, and then transferred to 20 months of detention in Holot. In late 2013, the Ministry of Interior segregated the offices that provide services to Israelis, migrants and tourists and those providing services to asylum-seekers. Currently, only three offices throughout Israel accept asylum-seekers and their working hours are limited. This results in long lines outside these offices. Once they manage to enter the Ministry of interior, asylum-seekers undergo humiliating interrogations and clerks demand that they provide different documents, such as payslips and apartment rental contracts in their name, before their visa is renewed. Some asylum-seekers cannot obtain these documents and therefore, after waiting hours and even days in line, have to go back empty handed, fearing arrest and prolonged administrative detention.

6. Racist Incitement: To justify the Israeli policy toward asylum-seekers, Israeli politicians consistently present asylum-seekers as “infiltrators” who have left their homeland and came to Israel due to economic reasons. In addition, asylum-seekers who make up about 0.5% of the population in Israel are presented as a demographic threat that will destroy Israel. Politicians and community leaders also present asylum-seekers and criminals and spreaders of disease, although facts do not support these assertions. This incitement, coming from prominent figures such as Prime Minister Netanyahu, ministers of interior, members of Knesset and Rabbis contributed to a hostile public atmosphere toward asylum-seekers and even hate crimes against people with dark skin.

Kindergarten of migrant children in south Tel Aviv after it was firebombed by racist Israelis in April 2012. Photo courtesy of ActiveStills

The purpose of all these different policies is to pressure asylum-seekers to leave without forcibly returning them to their homelands. Ministry of Interior representatives, outside and especially inside detention facilities, pressure asylum-seekers to “agree” to leave to their countries of origin or to Uganda or Rwanda. To encourage their departure, the uses the six sticks but also a carrot in the form of $3,500 for each person who leaves. Testimonies of asylum-seekers who’ve left to Sudan, Uganda and Rwanda show that asylum-seekers coming from Israel face persecution, torture, detention and threats of deportation to their countries of origin.

In March 2015, the Ministry of Interior announced a new policy – asylum-seekers will be offered to leave to Rwanda and if they refuse, they will be indefinitely jailed in Saharonim prison, across the road from Holot. The Ministry of Interior summoned several dozens of Eritrean detainees in Holot and told them that they have to choose between Rwanda and open-ended imprisonment. In the last week of June, the Israeli government began summoning asylum-seekers detained in Holot to hearings. They were told that if they do not leave Israel to Rwanda they will be jailed in Saharonim prison indefinitely.

Written by: Elizabeth Tsurkov