Israel Has Examined Only 250 Out of 1,800 Asylum Requests - and Approved None

Israel has not granted refugee status to a single Eritrean or Sudanese national, even though European states have granted such status to more than 70 percent of asylum-seekers from those countries.

Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior
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Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior

African demonstrators have been calling on Israel this week to examine their asylum requests and recognize them as refugees. Haaretz has learned that of the 1,800 asylum requests made by Eritrean and Sudanese nationals so far, only about 250 have been examined, of which about 155 were rejected. No decision has been made yet on the rest of the applications.

As far as is known, all the applications that were considered were submitted by Eritrean nationals who were imprisoned.

Until now, Israel has not granted refugee status to a single Eritrean or Sudanese national, even though European states have granted such status to more than 70 percent of asylum-seekers from those countries. In reply to a query from Haaretz Tuesday night, a spokesperson for the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority said that 1,800 applications were in various stages of examination. The spokesperson added that roughly 420 of the applications under consideration had been submitted by Eritrean and Sudanese nations who were required to stay in the Holot detention facility or are jailed in the Saharonim prison.

“As of today, the examination of some of the applications by Eritreans recommended for refugee status has ended, and their applications are being discussed by the advisory committee,” the spokesperson added.

The recommendation of the refugee status determination department, which vets asylum requests, is now before the Interior Minister’s advisory committee on refugee affairs led by attorney Avi Himi. The committee’s recommendation will be handed to Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar for his final decision. If the interior minister approves the asylum requests, they will be the first Eritrean nations in Israel to receive refugee status.

Although Israel has chosen not to deport the Eritrean and Sudanese nationals collectively to their countries of origin, it is doing its best to make them leave. In addition to prolonged imprisonment, last month Israel established the Holot detention facility and began ordering the Eritrean and Sudanese nationals who live in the cities to report there within 30 days or face imprisonment. Israel also prohibits African migrants to take money or property out of Israel, and limits the sum that they may take with them when they leave. Recently, it also increased the amount of the grant it offers to those who agree to leave from $1,500 to $3,500 as part of the “voluntary departure” procedure.

Until about a year ago, Israel did not allow Eritrean or Sudanese nationals to request asylum. Since the state refused to examine their cases individually due to its policy of avoiding collective deportation, those who wished to apply for asylum were denied. In late 2012, after the previous amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law went into effect and many migrants were imprisoned, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants (formerly the Hotline for Migrant Workers) began submitting requests for asylum in the names of hundreds of imprisoned migrants, even though the application forms were not available in the prisons. At first, the state refused to examine the asylum requests on the grounds that they had not been submitted according to instructions.

The previous amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law states that Israel must begin examining the asylum application of a person held in custody within three months, and give him its answer within nine months at the most, or set him free. In late May 2013, the Interior Ministry began denying the first requests from Eritrean nationals nine months after they were submitted, on the grounds that draft evasion or desertion from military service did not provide enough basis to claim political persecution.

The state has evidently not responded so far to the applications of Sudanese nationals. Several of them were even released from prison because the legal deadline for the examination of their requests had passed. Only in recent months did Israel begin allowing Eritrean and Sudanese nationals not being held in custody to request asylum on an individual basis. Few have done so.

“The claim is being made from many directions that we are not examining the requests for asylum. We are examining the requests,” Sa’ar said during an interview on Army Radio on Monday.

Referring to the African migrants’ demonstrations, Sa’ar said, “Only a minority of that large community has submitted such requests.”

“They say that for months, you did not allow them to request [asylum], and because of that, few have applied for it,” Asaf Lieberman, the interviewer, said.

“Then I’m telling you that all the requests, without exception, are being considered,” Sa’ar replied. “It is not true that only a very few are being examined. Thousands are being examined ... Every request will be considered on an individual basis. There’s no question of that. This is not something we’re leaving in doubt.”

Regarding the disparity in the rate of recognition of the Eritrean and Sudanese nationals, Sa’ar said, “Some countries are much tougher than Israel in dealing with infiltrators,” adding that he was determined to encourage the nationals to leave Israel.

“For many years, the Interior Ministry refused to examine the asylum requests of Sudanese and Eritrean nationals, and barred them access to the asylum system on the grounds that they were not being deported from Israel,” said Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants. “Even according to the draconian Prevention of Infiltration Law, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants fought for months until it compelled the state to examine, at the very least, the applications of the Eritreans and Sudanese who were imprisoned. Eritreans and Sudanese people tried for years to apply for asylum, but even though they had assistance from human-rights organizations and even an attorney, the door was closed to them until recently.

“As long as the Population, Immigration and Border Authority concentrates on examining the asylum requests of work migrants from the Philippines and Thailand and takes care to avoid examining such requests from Eritrean and Sudanese refugees, it is likely that we will keep seeing the same tiny percentage of recognition of refugees in Israel.”

The Population, Immigration and Border Authority spokesperson said that the authority “also considers asylum requests from Eritreans and Sudanese. The examination procedure for these requests is thorough, and looks into individual cases of persecution on the basis of one of the fundamental principles laid down in the convention. Requests that are based on one of these principles are passed on to the advisory committee on refugee affairs. We emphasize that Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar has ordered priority treatment for asylum requests submitted by infiltrators staying in the open Holot facility and infiltrators in custody in Saharonim. Over the past year, the authority has doubled the number of personnel in the RSD department to approximately 60 employees to speed up and streamline the process of checking refugee status in Israel.”

African migrants protest outside Israel’s parliament in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014. Credit: AP

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