Sudanese refugees
Sudanese refugees in Eilat. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
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Only eight of the 990 foreigners who applied for asylum in Israel last year were actually granted it by the Interior Ministry, a report from the ministry's Population and Immigration Authority reveals.

In 2010, six people received asylum, and in 2009 two did. Unlike procedure in other countries, migrants from Sudan and Eritrea - who constitute a majority of those entering Israel illegally - are given protection as a group to remain in Israel, although not formal asylum. They are not included in the data. However, with the division of Sudan into two countries and the independence of South Sudan, nationals of South Sudan in Israel are no longer accorded automatic protection here and must apply for asylum.

Of the 769 administrative appeals filed last year over denial of asylum, the decision was reversed in just two cases.

The asylum application figures reveal that Israel is much more sparing than other countries in granting asylum applications. In 2010, Britain gave asylum status to 19 percent of those who applied for it. In the United States that year, the approval rate was 27 percent, while in France it was nearly 19 percent. Switzerland, by contrast, gave asylum status to five percent of those who sought it.

"The huge disparity in the rate of recognition as a refugee between Israel and other countries around the world reveals what anyone who has contact with the refugee system in Israel knows: The Interior Ministry is determined not to grant refugee status and runs a system that applies distorted standards, mainly designed to justify the expulsion of refugees to dangerous places," said Yonatan Berman of the refugee clinic at the Academic Center of Law and Business in Ramat Gan.

Haim Efraim, who heads the ministry's unit that handles asylum seekers' applications, said many of the applications his unit receives - some 60 to 70 percent - are totally without foundation. "These are requests in which the story presented by the applicant is fundamentally different from the true story," he said. He cited, for example, a group of African women who initially said they were smuggled across the border from Egypt, but it later turned out they arrived via Ben-Gurion International Airport. He also mentioned many cases involving foreigners whose work visas expire and who apply for asylum simply to stay on longer.

Until July 2009, asylum applications were submitted through the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. After that the Interior Ministry set up its own unit for asylum seekers.

Between July 2009 and May of last year, the UN commissioner's office sent 61 requests for refugee asylum to the ministry with a recommendation that the applications be granted. Eight of the asylum seekers were granted refugee status, 11 received other protected status, 15 are pending and the remaining 27 were rejected.

This year, interviews with asylum seekers will begin to be recorded, in a move that will provide greater transparency, say staff at the Interior Ministry's asylum unit.