Israel Asylum Office

Challenges for African Asylum Seekers in Israel- How much has changed?

Depending on your frame of reference, the difference between 2010 and 2013 can seem substantial …or perhaps not. In 2010, there were around 22,000 African asylum seekers in Israel, and today there are more than 60,000. That certainly is a substantial increase. What is not different is that these individuals are still struggling to meet their basic needs, concerned for both their present and their future.

Three years ago when I lived in Israel, I spent time volunteering with the African Refugee Development Center. I helped a handful of the 22,000 access medical care from free clinics, private doctors, and Israeli hospitals. Before I left for Israel in 2009 I had heard about the new phenomenon of Africans fleeing from their home countries and traveling to Israel in search of safety. I knew I wanted to help and, after witnessing their struggles in 2010, I knew the Jewish people and the Jewish state were faced with a challenging issue. I wondered how our collective responsibility to welcome and protect the stranger would unfold, especially in the context of a struggle that Jews and Israelis know so well: fleeing persecution and hoping not to be turned away from a place of safety.

In 2010 I had a feeling that this issue was only beginning to take root. I hoped that it would not take long for Jews and Israel to realize that this could become a defining issue of our time and one that we would want to be able to look back on with pride over how it was handled. (I even wrote a guest blog for the RAC in May of that year as I thought about Jewish history and the significance of the opportunity to assist asylum seekers Israel.)

Three years later I am still personally, and now also professionally, engaged in the issue of asylum seekers in Israel. I hope that now I will be able to help more than a handful. The organization I work for, HIAS, is the global migration agency of the organized Jewish community and for 130 years has helped Jewish and other refugees fleeing persecution find safety and routes to new lives. In my role, I support the asylum seekers in Israel through HIAS’ policy, advocacy, and community engagement efforts.

Currently, HIAS is embedded within the Israeli Ministry of the Interior to help address the challenge—new to Israel, but not new to HIAS—of developing an asylum system that is fair, efficient, and humane. The system is not yet performing at a satisfactory level, and there is still work to be done. Of the more than 60,000 asylum seekers in Israel today, most entered the country through the Sinai within the past five years. This is what prompted Israel to build an asylum system from scratch. While Israel was active in the drafting of the Refugee Convention of 1951 and among its first signatories, it has been endeavoring to carry out the Convention without having passed relevant legislation.

In Spring 2012, the influx of African asylum seekers led to protests; xenophobic rhetoric from politicians; and violence against the asylum seekers, their homes, and their property. Since then, the government has built a fence along the border with Egypt in Sinai, and the number of asylum seekers entering the country each month has fallen drastically. Asylum seekers who enter the country are immediately detained and, under the “Anti-Infiltration Law,” can be held for three years or, in some cases, indefinitely.

While Israeli Courts have upheld certain rights of asylum seekers, including the right of asylum-seeker children to access public education, many of their most urgent needs are not being met. Eritreans and Sudanese—the vast majority of those seeking asylum in Israel—are granted “temporary group protection,” enabling them to remain in Israel and avoid deportation due to the human rights abuses in their countries. However, asylum seekers are eligible for few medical, social, or legal services and must rely on local organizations to help them with their basic needs. With the legal status of asylum seekers in constant flux, most are unable to access medical care, and like asylum seekers in most other countries including the U.S., they are not given work permits, making it difficult to support themselves.

HIAS has urged Israeli politicians to stop labeling asylum seekers as “infiltrators,” “economic migrants,” or other prejudicial and false terms. The use of these terms is not only inaccurate, but incites protests and violence. It is HIAS’ hope that they be called “asylum seekers” unless and until a well-functioning government system, like the ones in most other developed countries, finds that they do not qualify for asylum.

In an effort to empower the American Jewish community to get involved in this issue, HIAS provides current information on its website, supports those interested in creating local programming to raise awareness, hosts special events highlighting the issue, and invites individuals and groups to visit or volunteer with asylum seeker communities in Tel Aviv. Stay up-to-date on the latest by signing up for HIAS’ Middle East Refugee Digest.

Shaina Ward is Policy Associate at HIAS in Washington, DC, where she works to advance the organization’s refugee and immigration protection agenda by educating policymakers and advocating for issues concerning refugees and immigrants.

Image courtesy of OREN ZIV/AFP/Getty Images.


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