Refugees in Israel
The Refugee Situation in Israel
The majority of the estimated 61,000 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.
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.
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 which was near to completion in 2012, the passage of the Anti-Infiltration Bill in January 2012 and limitations to the protection process.
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.
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 November 2012, news agencies and human rights groups reported that the Israeli army had been blocking the entry of asylum seekers at the Egyptian border.
Updated November 2012