Refugees in Israel

The Refugee Situation in Israel

The majority of the estimated 55,000 asylum seekers in Israel are from Eritrea and Sudan, while other communities come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and the Ivory Coast. More than 90 percent of this population have arrived since 2007. Fifteen percent are women.

Though signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the key international agreement that defines refugee rights and countries’ legal obligations, the Israeli government has not yet adopted asylum legislation, and the asylum process in Israel is marked by a lack of clarity in policy and procedure. Israel has one of the lowest refugee recognition rates in the world.


Most refugees cross the border on foot from Egypt. From the moment that they enter into Israel, they are detained for an indefinite period of time in overcrowded conditions.

Automatic detention of arriving asylum seekers has become the default course of action in Israel since 2007. At the beginning of 2012, the government signed an amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law, which would detain asylum seekers for three years without trial, or indefinitely if they came from “enemy” countries like Sudan.

The government has also built mass detention centers such as Saharonim in the Negev desert. Thousands of refugees remain imprisoned in places like this until their status is determined.

In September 2013 the Supreme Court revoked the Ant-Infiltration law stating it as a violation of human rights.

Lack of rights
Once prisons like Saharonim are filled to capacity, asylum seekers are released into Israeli city centers without any further assistance. Asylum seekers' access to basic services, such as health care, housing, education, vocational training and employment ranges from very limited to none at all. Hundreds of new arrivals, including pregnant women, children and unaccompanied minors have remained homeless.

A significant majority of the asylum seekers in Israel today hold a “conditional release”, or S2A5: a temporary visa that since November 2010 does not grant the bearer permission to work. As the visa neither explicitly denies nor permits asylum seekers to work, however, confusion prevails among refugees and employers alike.

As a result, asylum seekers not only find it hard to secure work; they are also especially vulnerable to the exploitation and dangerous working conditions involved in informal and unregulated employment. In addition, employers are less likely to respect legal obligations regarding medical and national insurance for these workers.

Refugees and Israeli society

The asylum seekers have barely integrated into Israeli society; this is due to the social stigma attached to them by the government branding  them as 'infiltrators'; the socially conservative neighborhoods they find themselves living in (mostly within cheap neighborhoods); and the language barrier. Children of asylum seekers have an easier time due to the speed with which they learn the language and the school system which places them in classrooms with a cross section of Israeli society. The NGO's working on refugee rights and the workplace rights are places where friendships between asylum seekers and Israelis are made, although the overwhelming sentiment in Israeli society is that they remain firmly on the periphery of Israeli society.

Children of asylum seekers

Tel Aviv has taken the responsibility of ensuring the rights of children, including finding places for all children in schools and helping set up Mesila to oversee the legal rights of asylum seeker and migrant worker children in the city. Many of the children attend Bialik Rogozin School in South Tel Aviv, which was the subject of an Oscar winning documentary in 2011. Protection remains a challenge for both the NGO's and the municipality due to unreported cases of neglect and abuse, and the emotional and work related pressures of asylum seeking families. To date, asylum seeker children, even those born here, are ineligible to apply for military service, although the demand to participate is high.


From mid-2009, confronted by an influx of non-Jewish migrants, the government began to introduce a number of interrelated measures designed to deter further arrivals. This includes threatening to fine employers of asylum seekers without a work permit, the proposed construction of a detention centre like Saharonim, the erection of a tall border fence completed in 2013, the passage of the Anti-Infiltration Bill in January 2012, limitations to the protection process and discussion with 3rd party countries to take asylum seekers already in Israel.

A significant majority of the asylum seekers in Israel today hold a “conditional release” and November 2010, the Ministry of Interior began to mark such visas with the statement, “This visa is not a working permit.” While the government is not currently taking steps to enforce this policy or fine employers hiring asylum seekers holding such visas until the establishment of the proposed detention facility in the Negev, confusion prevails as the visa neither explicitly denies nor permits asylum seekers to work. As a result, not only are fewer asylum seekers in fact able to secure work, but they are more vulnerable to exploitation, and employers are less likely to respect legal obligations regarding medical and national insurance for these workers. Additionally, asylum seekers are further exposed to the dangerous working conditions involved in informal and unregulated employment.

Reluctance to grant status

Israel has shown extreme reluctance to grant refugee status to African asylum seekers. Since its establishment in 1948, fewer than 200 individuals have been recognized as refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Though Eritreans and Sudanese have high refugee status recognition rates globally, Israel refuses to review all individual asylum requests by nationals of these countries, effectively prohibiting them from entering the asylum system known as the Refugee Status Determination process.

Eritreans and Sudanese are instead granted prima facie group-based protection – an unstable, short-term status with severely limited rights –  and only does this if they can prove that they are a citizen of one of these countries.

Those who are eligible to apply for refugee status are subjected to a prolonged legal limbo, starting with a lengthy waiting period prior to a decision on their application; which, in turn, can take years. Police raids and arrests during this time are not uncommon and often end with detention.

Overall, uncertainty concerning one's legal status places an enormous psychological burden on asylum seekers, most of whom have already suffered considerable trauma before arriving in Israel.

Hot returns

Despite the Refugee Convention’s absolute prohibition of expulsion or return (“refoulement”) of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened, Israel summarily returned hundreds of asylum seekers to Egypt until the practice – known as “hot return” – was challenged by human rights groups in the Israeli Supreme Court in July 2011.

Despite that legal decision, in 2012 hundreds of Africans from South Sudan and the Ivory Coast have been rounded up and deported, as the Israeli government has deemed conditions in those countries to be safe.

In January 2013 the fence on the Sinai Border was completed, reducing the number of asylum seekers entering the country dramatically. 

Updated  October  2013