Somali refugee - Moti Milrod - October 2011
A Somali refugee in a park in Tel Aviv. Photo by Moti Milrod
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Out of the thousands of requests for refugee status submitted in Israel last year, a total of eight were approved, says a new report by a leading refugee rights attorney.

Long, exhausting interrogations, finding contradictions at any cost, investigations with foregone conclusions and contradictory responses - all these make up the system for granting refugee status in Israel, wrote attorney Yonatan Berman of the Hotline for Migrant Workers.

Hotline Executive Director Reut Michaeli said: "The report presents a depressing picture of the asylum system in Israel, a system established by the Interior Ministry with the goal of rejecting asylum requests by refugees in a systematic manner. The Interior Ministry and the system it set up have no interest or intention to determine who is a refugee and who isn't, or to provide any protection to any of those requesting [asylum].

"The goal of the system, and those heading it," Michaeli continued, "is to reject as many requests as possible. These actions lead to the ... immoral deportation of refugees to places where their lives are in danger, in opposition to Israel's international commitments and despite the personal history of the people and society in Israel."

In one case cited by the report, M., an asylum seeker from Eritrea, a brutal dictatorship to which Israel is pledged not to deport people, was interviewed by the refugee status unit a year ago. Officials cast doubt on her Eritrean citizenship. "They told me all the time that they know I am not really from Eritrea and I should admit that I am from Chad," said M. "It didn't matter how many times I explained that I fled with my family to Chad and was there for a few years; they didn't believe me and asked questions, sometimes yelling, and every answer I gave, they yelled that they didn't believe me and I should stop lying," she said. "They do not let up until you admit you are from Chad, even if it's not true - they won't give up."

M. said that without a lawyer she never would have been able to prove she was from Eritrea, even though her brother, who fled to Germany, had received refugee status there.

In another case, the unit rejected A.'s request for asylum after determining he was unreliable because he did not remember the cost of the bus ticket he bought for his trip from western Sudan to Khartoum, a trip he made once in his life. He also did not remember the color of the bus.

The Interior Ministry's Population and Immigration Authority said most if not all the claims in the report were baseless and rest on apparently inaccurate information. Officials evaluating refugee status are experienced investigators and have been trained with the aid and cooperation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the authority said, and their job is to find the genuine refugees among the thousands of imposters. Unfortunately, the authority continued, a large number of the requests are baseless.

Berman's report examined the workings of the interministerial National Status-Granting Body and the entire system for handling requests for asylum, which has been in operation for two and a half years since Israel took over the process from the UNHCR.

The human rights attorney conducted over 100 interviews with asylum seekers and the attorneys representing them and examined documents issued by the interministerial refugee status unit, including protocols of interviews and legal opinions. The report also relies on protocols of meetings of an advisory committee on refugee issues, recommendations written by officials involved in the process, and material submitted to the courts in refugee status cases.

The way the process for granting refugee status in Israel works is that the Interior Ministry's refugee status determination unit examines each case and interviews the asylum seekers, then presents its recommendations to the National Status-Granting Body, which is made up of representatives from the interior, justice and foreign ministries. This body then sends its recommendations to the interior minister or the head of the Population and Immigration Authority for a final decision.

The refugee status determination unit is also in charge of researching the countries the refugees have fled, and determining whether the situation in the country prevents Israel from sending people back there. This crucial determination is made by single investigator, whose work the report calls "unprofessional and problematic."

The report found numerous flaws and problems with the procedures. For example, the refugee status unit calls its officials "investigators" even though they have never been officially authorized as such.

"Asylum interviews are conducted as if they were police investigations of suspected criminals, in which the assumption is that the person is lying, and the purpose of the procedure is to reveal the lies," the report states. The way the unit treats refugees in interviews is described as aggressive and improper. In many cases, UNHCR representatives interviewed asylum seekers and found them eligible for protection, yet the Israeli unit reversed the findings.

The report also suspects that the rejection letters given to asylum seekers are produced on an "assembly line" in a manner of "cut and paste" and full of factual errors. Letters were signed by the committee secretary, even though she was on an extended vacation at the time. Sometimes the Hebrew version of the letter does not match the English version and even contradicts it.

In one case a woman was informed in English that her request for refugee status had been accepted, but in Hebrew, which she did not understand, she was told she was being given only temporary status.

Another major complaint in the report concerns the quality and professionalism of the translators used by the ministry, which often leads to problems that are never even identified.

In addition, the UN has no official role in the process, though they are allowed to sit in on status-granting committee proceedings as observers, said the ministry, adding that translators are employees of a company chosen by tender, providing services to all government bodies, including the courts. The translators are professional and experienced, and claims they are unqualified are baseless, the ministry said.

As to specific cases, the ministry said it would be glad to receive details and examine them.