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Overview of Current Situation of Asylum-Seekers in Israel

Israel is home to about 53,000 African asylum-seekers who have entered Israel through Egypt since 2005. 67% of them hail from Eritrea, popularly known as the “North Korea of Africa”. Thousands flee Eritrea each month, escaping life-long servitude in the so-called “National Service”. 25% of asylum-seekers in Israel are from Sudan, the overwhelming majority of them from African tribes that are harshly persecuted by the Arab central government – survivors of the genocide in Darfur and ethnic cleansing in the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile area.

The entry of asylum-seekers was almost entirely halted in 2013 due to the construction of the border fence with Egypt – in 2013, only 40 asylum-seekers entered Israel. Of these asylum-seekers, over 1,000 are detained under the Anti-Infiltration Law (2013). The rest reside in Israel’s cities, concentrated mostly in the impoverished and neglected neighborhoods of southern Tel Aviv, where they can afford to pay rent.

Asylum-seekers residing in Israel receive a “conditional release visa”, which they must renew every couple of months. This visa grants the asylum-seekers the right to stay in Israel until their deportation is possible, but no other rights. Asylum-seekers are unable to change this status as Israel does not examine the asylum requests of all Sudanese and Eritrean nationals who are outside of detention – over 90% of asylum-seekers in Israel. As a result, to this day, 0 Sudanese and 2 Eritrean nationals received refugee status in Israel (0.004% of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel). By comparison, UNHCR data shows that in 2012, 90% of Eritrean asylum-seekers received refugee status or complementary protection worldwide as did 72.4% of Sudanese asylum-seekers.

According to the State of Israel, the asylum-seekers who have entered Israel are illegal work migrants and “infiltrators”, a term used to denote Palestinians who would enter Israel in the 1950s to carry out sabotage attacks. At the same time, Israel does not deport the “infiltrators” as it does regularly with undocumented work migrants, due to danger they will face in their homelands. Deporting people to places where their liberty or life are likely to be endangered would violate the non-refoulement principle, which is part of Israeli and international law.

However, other than not deporting asylum-seekers to their homelands, Israel violates nearly all other articles of the Refugee Convention. Israel signed and ratified the 1951 Convention after being involved in drafting it, as Israel wished to ensure that the prevalent practice of deporting refugees to Nazi-controlled territories during the Holocaust is not repeated. Israel deprives asylum-seekers of basic human and social rights. Asylum-seekers who are outside of detention do not enjoy access to medical or welfare services, except in life-threatening situations, and are officially not allowed to work. They are able to find employment, often for below the minimum-wage, because the State committed before the High Court of Justice to not enforce the law and not fine the employers of asylum-seekers.

Asylum-seekers are also deprived of the right to liberty and freedom of movement in Israel. On December 10, 2013, International Human Rights Day, the Knesset passed Amendment No. 4 to the Anti-Infiltration Law (originally enacted in the 1950s). Under the new version of the law, passed in less than 90 days by the Knesset to bypass a High Court of Justice ruling that voided the 2012 amendment of the Law, asylum-seekers will be detained for a period of one year at the Saharonim or Ktziot prisons for asylum-seekers upon entering Israel. Following the one-year detention without trial, the asylum-seekers will be transferred to the a new open-air detention camp located across the road from the prisons for asylum-seekers, close to the border with Egypt, deep in the Negev desert. Asylum-seekers have to participate in three roll-calls per day and sleep at the detention camp, which is run by the Israeli Prison Services. Asylum-seekers are not allowed to work and missing any roll call or being caught working outside of the detention camp is punished by months of incarceration in the prisons for refugees, after which the asylum-seeker is returned to the “open” detention camp.

The detention in the “open” camp is open-ended and there is no judicial review of the detention, since Israel describes the internment camp as a “center for residents”. The purpose of the law is to create conditions under which asylum-seekers will be willing to endanger their lives and “agree” to be deported to their homeland. On top of the “stick” of open-ended detention, the Israeli government also offers a “carrot” – each asylum-seeker $3,500 if they “agree” to be deported. The UNHCR harshly criticized this practice, stating that agreeing to return to ones homeland from detention cannot be considered “voluntary”.

The Anti-Infiltration Law applies not only to people who crossed the border from Egypt following the enactment of the law. For the past two weeks, asylum-seekers residing in Israel for years received summons to the “open” detention camp when they went to the Ministry of Interior to renew their visas. As the detention camp does not accommodate children and women, fathers who are being summoned to open-ended detention are torn away from their children and wives. At the same time, the Ministry of Interior sharply reduced the number of visas they renew, resulting in long queues outside Ministry of Interior offices and asylum-seekers who’ve been unable to renew their visas. Following this reduction, Immigration policemen began carrying out raids in areas where asylum-seekers reside, arresting those who’ve been unable to renew their visas. The detainees are then transferred to the detention facility in the Negev.