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How the Israeli Ministry of Interior Abuses Married Asylum-Seekers

Written by: Elizabeth Tsurkov

Asylum-seekers who reside in Israel have to renew their visa every one to two months. Without a valid visa, asylum-seekers cannot work, access their bank accounts, and most importantly, face arrest and detention for 20 months without trial under the Anti-Infiltration Law. In the past, asylum-seekers’ visas were extended to six months, then four months, but the Ministry of Interior (MoI) keeps reducing the duration of the visas’ validity. On top of this, every time asylum-seekers go to the Ministry of Interior offices to renew their visa, the MoI demands that they provide payslips and apartment lease agreements in their name, documents that not all asylum-seekers posses. Moreover, married asylum-seekers have to present marriage certificates each times and parents are required to provide the notification about a newborn issued by the hospital where the woman gave birth. This is the only document that bears the father’s name, since the Ministry of Interior refuses to register the names of fathers in the birth certificates they issue for asylum-seekers’ children. From time to time, the MoI also decides to examine the “truthfulness” of the couple’s relationship by conducting humiliating and invasive interviews.

Tesfay’s story (not is real name) demonstrated the challenges the Ministry of Interior places before asylum-seekers who have families in Israel. His case is not exceptional, but because he turned to the Hotline for help, we documented the abuse he underwent. Tesfay lives in Eilat with his pregnant wife. In November 2014, when Tesfay went to renew his visa at the MoI office in Eilat, as he has done every few months for years. Instead of renewing his visa, the MoI clerks told Tesfay to report to the Tel Aviv MoI. The next day, Tesfay made the costly and long journey from Eilat to Tel Aviv. In the MoI office in Tel Aviv, the clerks told Tesfay to go back to the Eilat MoI office. Tesfay turned again to the Eilat MoI office. Again, he was told to return to Tel Aviv. Tesfay traveled once again to the Tel Aviv MoI and again, the clerks there refused to renew his visa. Instead, the clerks told him to go to the MoI office in Bnei Brak. That same day, Tesfay traveled to Bnei Brak and waited for eight hours in line outside the MoI office only to hear the clerks tell him to go back to the Tel Aviv MoI office. The next day, Tesfay went back to the Tel Aviv MoI office, the third time in this round of abuse. The clerks refused to renew his visa and told him to get lost and never come back to their office.

The desperate Tesfay turned again to the Eilat MoI office where he was told that he must return with his heavily pregnant wife, to undergo an interview to examine the truthfulness of their relationship. Every few months, the MoI decided to hold such interrogations, even if the couple underwent the procedure before, even if the couple has a marriage certificate or mutual children. The parents are brought into separate rooms and questioned about their personal lives. The interrogations are carried out separately, but not privately – several people are questioned in the same room. If the partners don’t answer the questions identically and the male partner meets the criterion for being summoned to detention under the Anti-Infiltration Law (citizens of Sudan who’ve arrived in Israel before June 2011 or citizens of Eritrea who’ve arrived in Israel prior to June 2009), the MoI will order the asylum-seekers to report to 20 months of administrative detention in the Holot facility.

The interrogators’ questions go into details about the couple’s shared living arrangement. For example, the shape of the windows in their home, the number of grates in the window, how the water is flushed in their toilet, what material their bed is made of, and what the partner wore the night before the interrogation.

A number of asylum-seekers reported to the Hotline that some of the questions of the MoI interrogators are humiliating and invasive and focus on the couple’s sex life. Several times, asylum-seekers were summoned to detention in Holot after the MoI found that they were not in a romantic relationship with their wives since they were unwilling to answer invasive questions about their sex lives. Y., an asylum-seeker from Eritrea, told the Hotline: “I told them I don’t answer such questions. We are religious people, we don’t talk about such things.” N., an Eritrean woman, told the Hotline about an interrogation she underwent by two male MoI employees: “They asked me how I met my husband and how long we’ve been together. Then suddenly they asked about what color my underwear is and in what position we had sex last night. I was so scared when they asked those questions and I started to tremble in fear and cry. I told them that he worked at night and we didn’t have sex. Maybe they asked more questions. I don’t remember and I couldn’t answer anything because I was so afraid. I was afraid they’ll do something to me after they spoke to me this way.”

Back to Tesfay – repeated appeals on his behalf by the Hotline were ignored. Tesfay arrived with his wife to undergo the interrogation about their relationship on November 26, 2014, at the MoI office in Eilat. Because the MoI didn’t have an available translator at the time, they told the couple to present themselves to an interview on January 22, 2015. In the meantime, Tesfay was not issued a new visa – he couldn’t work and support his family and faced arrest and prolonged detention. After two months of waiting, Tesfay and his wife underwent the interrogation and managed to convince the MoI that they are truly a couple. Tesfay’s visa was extended by just two months.