Photo: Yair Meyuhas

Some Statistics Israeli approved the asylum claims of only about 200 refugees since it signed the Refugee Convention almost 60 years ago.

‏Over the years, Israel has recognized much less than 1% of asylum claims , while in other developed counties, between 10-50% of applicants receive refugee status. Between July 2009 and August 2013, Israel recognized 0.15% of asylum-seekers as refugees, the lowest percentage in the Western world.

How Does the Israeli Asylum System Manufacture Such Low Recognition Rates?

Most Asylum-Seekers Barred from Filing Asylum Requests Until Late 2013

‏Before examining the way Israel reviews individual asylum claims, it must be explained that most asylum-seekers residing in Israel did not have access to it until late 2013. In the past, after initial questioning at the Ministry of Interior, citizens of Eritrea, Sudan and Congo, who make up over 91% of asylum-seekers residing in Israel, were given a “Conditional Release Visa” (the 2(a)(5) visa), which grants the asylum-seekers the right not to be deported from Israel until conditions allow it. The visa does not allow asylum-seekers to work or have access to welfare or medical services.

‏This policy was adopted because Israel does not wish to clearly violate the non-refoulement principle by deporting people to countries such as Sudan, Eritrean and Congo. At the same time, Israel does not want to grant any right to the people who are already in Israel, thinking that if asylum-seekers suffer a miserable existence in Israel, this will deter more asylum-seekers from coming here. Therefore, the State follows a policy of “group protection” or “temporary delay of deportation” for asylum-seekers from those countries. The Refugee Convention calls on states to examine the individual claim of every asylum-seeker; “group protection” a procedure countries resort to in cases of mass influx of asylum-seekers, when the State cannot handle examining the individual claims of all asylum-seekers.

‏In early 2013, Israel began allowing asylum-seekers administratively detained under the Anti-Infiltration Law to file asylum claims. After months of trying to force the Ministry of Interior to provide refugee status determination (RSD) forms to immigration detention facilities, asylum-seekers who were detained under the Anti-Infiltration Law, which came into force in June 2012, were finally given the ability to file asylum claims from prison, as the Law stipulated. At the end of 2013, Israel began allowing asylum-seekers outside of detention facilities to file RSD forms as well, but did not announce this change in policy.

‏Over 5,000 asylum-seekers from Eritrean and Sudan have filed asylum claims to date. Most Sudanese asylum-seekers are still awaiting a decision on their RSD application, and dozens of the Sudanese asylum-seekers received a negative response. Zero Sudanese nationals received refugee status in Israel to date. Hundreds of asylum requests by Eritreans were answered in the negative, with a letter worded identically stating that the Minister of Interior decided that defecting from the Eritrean Army is not to be recognized as a reason for receiving refugee status in Israel. This stance stands in stark contrast with all other Western nations, except Switzerland, that recognize defectors from the Eritrean Army as refugees. Service in the Eritrean Army involves forced labor for the benefit of the regime and the length of the service is not restricted. Defectors from the army are considered traitors and those who are caught after defecting are detained and tortured in prisons characterized by life-threatening conditions. Only three Eritrean nationals who proved they were persecuted for additional reasons other than fleeing or evading national service were granted refugee status by February 2015.

Israel’s Asylum System

‏Until 2011, UN High Commissioner for Refugees staffers in Israel interviewed asylum-seekers, the cases were examined at the UNHCR headquarters in Geneva and the recommendations were presented to the Minister of Interior who made the final call. In 2001, an Inter-Ministerial Committee was formed whose role is to examine the asylum requests approved by the experts at the UNHCR, and recommend to the Minister of Interior cases that were found to be deserving of refugee status.

‏In 2009, after a few years marked by a steady increase in the number of asylum-seekers entering the country, the Ministry of Interior decided to take responsibility for examining asylum applications. Two units were formed in the Immigration Authority at the Ministry of Interior: the Unit of Identification and Questioning at the Department for Infiltrators [the terms the State uses to denote people who elsewhere in the world are called asylum-seekers] and Refugees. The second unit, which does an in depth review of asylum requests (the RSD process), is the Unit for Dealing with Asylum Seekers.

‏The asylum requests are submitted to the Unit of Identification and Questioning, which is staffed by clerks without any training on identifying refugees. Those clerks have the right, which they’ve used in 75% of cases in 2011, to reject the asylum application out right, without any in depth examination of its merit. Those who receive a negative response are immediately detained and deported within three days, thus making it almost impossible for them to appeal the decision in the court system.

‏At this instance, all asylum-seekers from Sudan, Eritrean and Congo who entered Israel before the Anti-Infiltration Law came into force in June 2012, were given the “Conditional Release Papers” and barred until 2013 from having their case examined by the RSD unit.

‏Those who are not rejected outright by the Unit of Identification and Questioning are interviewed by the RSD unit. The unit forms recommendations and present them to the Inter-Ministerial Committee, which in turns, presents its own recommendations to the Minister of Interior.

‏All asylum-seekers recognized as refugees by the Inter-Ministerial Committee to date, except one case, received that status due to a recommendation from the UNHCR, which examined their case before July 2009. This means that only one case in Israel’s history that was examined entirely by Israel’s asylum system was deemed to be deserving of refugee status.

The way the RSD Unit interviews asylum-seekers shows that Israel categorically refuses to recognize people as refugees, in a gross violation of the Refugee Convention, which Israel is a signatory of. Instead, Israel’s efforts are focused on deporting people from Israel, without differentiating between cases deserving a refugee status and those that do not.

‏Asylum-seekers and lawyers who accompanied them testify that the questioning clerks present themselves as “interrogators” and perform the interview as a police interrogation. The “interrogators” have often been heard telling the asylum-seekers, even before the interview, that they are liars. Some demand the asylum-seekers to “confess” their “lies”, and the interviewees are often obligated to respond with only “yes” or “no”. The “interrogators” yell and speak rudely to the asylum-seekers during the “interrogation”. Minute details are examined to find contradictions in the asylum-seekers’ stories. This behavior is a blatant violation of the guidelines issued by the UNHCR on how to question asylum-seekers. The UNHCR guidelines call on interviewers to take into consideration the mental state of the asylum-seekers, who are often the victims of persecution, arrest and torture, and also mention the inherent challenges of the human memory, especially in such difficult circumstances.

‏Instead of dealing with asylum-seekers in fair and logical manner by having fair experts examine asylum requests in a reasonable time frame to determine who is a refugee and who can be deported, Israel adopted the policy of not examining most asylum requests are rejecting 99.85% of cases it does examine to deter new refugees from arriving and to get rid of those already in Israel.

Further reading:
Until Our Hearts Are Completely Hardened: Asylum Procedures in Israel (March 2012 report by the Hotline)

No Safe Haven: Israeli Asylum Policy as Applied to Eritrean and Sudanese Citizens (December 2014 report by the Hotline)