africans - Moti Milrod - December 14 2010
Asylum-seekers in southern Tel Aviv, December 14, 2010. Photo by Moti Milrod
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The 2010 Annual Report on Human Rights, published by the U.S. State Department, sharply criticizes Israel's conduct toward refugees and asylum seekers entering its territory.

The report, published shortly before Passover, also takes aim at the Population and Immigration Authority for granting visas to asylum seekers that do not include basic social rights, for preventing Eritrean and Sudanese citizens from acquiring refugee status, and for its "hot return" policy, which allows the army to return illegal immigrants to a neighboring country if 24 hours have not elapsed since their entry.

The report, which covers human rights violations around the globe, cites several instances in which immigration inspectors waited outside offices where refugees were submitting requests for asylum and arrested them as soon as their requests were denied. Incidents like these, according to the report, have led to a drop in the number of refugees requesting asylum in Israel. "The government failed to provide asylum seekers copies of their interview transcripts or sufficient explanations of their determinations," the report observes.

It further notes that a temporary injunction issued by the Supreme Court following a petition by refugee aid organizations, allowed asylum seekers to be accompanied by legal representatives during their interviews, "but the government continued to bar paralegals, and most asylum seekers could not afford counsel for hearings."

According to the report, the National Status Granting Board committee, staffed by four government officials, considered 3,211 cases between 2008 and 2009 but recommended refugee status for just three.

"We've been saying for years now that the asylum system in Israel, which operates under the Interior Ministry, is fundamentally flawed and works on the assumption that everyone is a liar," said attorney Yonatan Berman of the Hotline for Migrant Workers. "The very statistic implied by these numbers means the asylum system views only 0.1 percent as refugees, which is virtually 0 percent, and shows that the system has decided not to seriously or honestly examine the requests for asylum, but rather, to serve as a fig leaf."

Contrary to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Israel does not confer citizenship upon recognized refugees. In 2009, an Ethiopian refugee who had lived in Israel for a decade filed a petition on the matter with the Jerusalem District Court, but it has yet to reach a verdict.

The report also criticizes the "hot return" policy pertaining to asylum seekers caught crossing the border from Egypt. "Domestic and international NGOs and the UNHCR continued to be concerned with the practice of 'coordinated returns' or 'hot returns' of some asylum seekers to Egypt because of allegations that those individuals were later returned to their countries of origin in violation of their right to seek asylum and protection against such return," the report observed. "The government stated that through October 10, it had summarily returned to Egypt 136 persons who had crossed the country's border. This was a decrease from 517 persons who returned to Egypt after crossing the border in 2008-09."

The report also cites cases of incitement and violence against refugees and asylum seekers within Israel. "On December 18, an unknown arsonist threw a burning tire at the apartment door of five Sudanese refugees in Ashdod, setting the apartment on fire. The Sudanese refugees escaped by breaking through the barred glass window and were treated for smoke inhalation. Local residents and storeowners claimed they were attacked because they were refugees from Sudan. Ashdod police began an investigation that continued at year's end," the report notes, adding that "on December 18, a group of about 20 teenagers severely beat three 16-year-old daughters of African asylum seekers in the Hatikva neighborhood of Tel Aviv. The victims reportedly did not file a police report because they feared retribution."

The report places some of the responsibility for the violent atmosphere at the door of Israeli politicians, including Interior Minister Eli Yishai, Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman and MK Yaakov Katz (National Union ). "On March 22, Knesset member Yaakov Katz issued a letter that called for the establishment of an 'infiltrator' city to hold asylum seekers and stated that in 10 years the 'infiltrators' could 'ruin' the country," according to the report. "On July 19, Minister of Interior Eli Yishai called for IDF soldiers to 'block infiltrators' coming from the southern part of the country and stated, 'This is an existential threat to the State of Israel.' On September 2, Minister of Justice Yaakov Neeman stated that the 'infiltrators at the southern border create a real danger to the existence of the state of Israel, and Israel has to fight this phenomenon in every possible way.' In July the mayor of Eilat called on city residents to demonstrate against the large community of 'infiltrators' who had taken over the city, created a climate of fear, and lowered real estate value."