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Two Decades of Israel's (No) Asylum Policy

A position paper ahead of the discussion in the Foreign Workers Committee with the participation of the Minister of the Interior, scheduled for April 1, 2024

Forum of Refugee and Asylum Seeker Organizations in Israel


Photo: Yossi Zamir, Shetelstock
Two Decades of Israel's (No) Asylum Policy
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By 2005, only a few people who fled their countries seeking international protection came to Israel, so the state's commitment to protecting refugees was not put to the test. Since then, thousands of refugees have arrived in Israel, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan and more recently from Ukraine. Examining the policy that Israel has implemented towards refugees and asylum seekers leads to an unfortunate conclusion: Israel's asylum policy is actually a no- asylum policy.

Few refugees have arrived in Israel in comparison to other Western countries. Most are from nationalities with a clear and well-known right to refugee status. However, the only protection the state has provided them is a temporary protection from "removal" to their home countries. The path to receiving individual refugee status remains closed due to a dysfunctional asylum system. The group protection provided to them does not grant them any rights or assistance. Instead of settling and clarifying their status and rights, there is a patchwork of policies toward them and their children, necessitating ad hoc solutions from government ministries, local authorities, and other entities. This causes harm, confusion, and waste in all areas: healthcare, welfare, social security, education, and employment. These damages are accumulating exponentially. After living in Israel for almost two decades without regulated status or rights, the economic, physical, and mental condition of many refugees and asylum seekers and their children is dire.


The asylum system is nothing other than shameful. The pace and manner of handling asylum applications in Israel have been the subject of severe criticism from many international and national parties, including the State Comptroller and courts at various levels including the Supreme Court. According to the State Comptroller's report from 2018, theDeputy Attorney General warned in 2017, that “there is a real legal difficulty in protecting the pace of processing asylum applications, especially of asylum seekers from Eritrea and Darfur.” Since then, nothing has changed. Only about 50 Eritreans have been recognized as refugees in Israel, while in other countries, including EU countries, the rate of recognizing Eritreans as refugees is over 80%. The only Sudanese asylum seekers who received ‘temporary resident’ status in Israel received it following legal proceedings and long years of waiting for a decision on their asylum applications.


Group protection only prevents deportation. While denied individual recognition and status as refugees, most refugees in Israel receive a 2A5 visa – a printed page that does not even look like an official visa document. Over the years, thanks to the persistent struggles of organizations and activists, limited rights have been granted to the holders of this visa. They are allowed to work (although 2A5 is not a work visa). Their children are entitled to study in the state education system and receive health insurance, although this arrangement is now in danger of being cancelled. Adults are entitled to a limited number of benefits to which every foreign worker in Israel is entitled. Women who are victims of domestic violence can receive aid through various channels. Refugees who are homeless or have disabilities are entitled to out-of-home placements in extreme cases, but this is dependent on having medical insurance, which is not available to them. Ukrainian refugees have not yet been granted 2A5 visas. They received a little more assistance in the first months after their arrival through the "Order of the Hour" emergency center, but its budget has been depleted, its services have been reduced, and it is slated to close soon. In many ways, the situation of Ukrainian refugees is being "downgraded" towards the situation of refugees from Africa.


Many refugees in Israel are victims of torture, human trafficking, and other severe traumas. They have been living in Israel for many years without public health insurance, welfare services, or social security benefits. The 2A5 visa does not enable them to get a driver's license, open a file with the Israel Tax Authority, engage in professions that require licensing, or receive full banking services.


Israel is ostensibly committed to the principle of non-refoulement and refrains from deporting refugees to their home countries. However, denying them their rights and opportunities to live here with dignity constitutes “constructive refoulement” and violates this principle in practice. A person may “voluntarily” leave Israel for a place where they will be in danger out of desperation and inability to live here with dignity. This is especially true in light of the policy that Israel has been pursuing since 2013 of encouraging “voluntary departure” among refugees protected against deportation. At times, this included also severe coercive measures such as incarceration in detention facilities or economic sanctions.


Israel is rapidly dismantling even these meager protections. Recently, the state announced that it would rescind group protection against the deportation of Ethiopian refugees, including those from Tigray, despite the fact that war is still raging there, and other countries are refraining from returning refugees to that region. This is not the first time that Israel was quick to remove protections for refugees from countries where the situation was still dangerous. Israel threatened to deport Congolese refugees in 2019 (the Minister of the Interior reversed his decision) and again in 2022 (the decision was softened significantly following legal proceedings). In 2012, protection for South Sudanese refugees was removed and they were deported to South Sudan, a country that had been newly established after a long and difficult war. The tragic consequences quickly became clear: South Sudan was again torn apart by war and almost everyone who had been deported from Israel again became refugees. Many of them died.


Children and youth are a second generation facing an unprotected life. The children of refugees from Eritrea and Sudan grew up in Israel. Most of them were born here. Nevertheless, they “inherit” the meager protections their parents receive from the state. They are Israeli children. They have no other country. But they are pushed to the margins of society from birth. When they reach the age of 18, they receive the 2A5 visa, which blocks almost every path to successful and fruitful integration into Israeli society. Children with similar circumstances can obtain citizenship in almost every other Western country.


After years of living without a stable status or rights, many refugees from Sudan and Eritrea suffer from poverty and food insecurity, and the situation of the refugees from Ukraine is deteriorating. Israel has a moral and legal obligation to amend its no-asylum policy and provide protection for refugees. It has a clear interest in doing so. Marginalizing entire populations, forcing them to live in poverty and despair, and preventing them from integrating and contributing to society harms not only the refugees but also Israel and Israelis.


The asylum system must be reformed urgently. Israel’s policy of group protection must be regulated, including procedures for its application and removal, and the rights it includes. Refugees who have been here legally for two decades and their children must be granted status. These moves are legally and morally imperative, and quite simply, they are in the interests of Israeli society.


Dr. Shani Bar-Tuvia, 0524336487, Shani.refugeeforum@assaf.org.il


 

 

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