Two Eritreans Granted Refugee Status in Rare Decision

Vast majority of asylum seeker requests ignored or rejected because Israel does not consider fleeing from forced military service sufficient to warrant protection.

Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior

Israel has for the first time granted refugee status to two Eritrean nationals, who were subsequently released from the detention center where they had been held since entering Israel. The decision was approved by Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar after their applications were examined by a special advisory committee, as reported in Haaretz about three weeks ago.

In response to a query from Haaretz, the ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority said 250 out of 1,800 asylum requests from Eritrean and Sudanese nationals had been examined. The agency rejected around 150 of the requests and has not yet responded to the rest.

Most of the requests for asylum note that the applicants had fled years of forced military service in Eritrea. In rejecting these applications, Israel has explained that avoiding or fleeing military service is insufficient cause for claiming political persecution.

The chairman of the committee that advises the interior minister on refugees, attorney Avi Haimi, said that in contrast to other cases, the two individuals whose requests were recently approved had justified reasons to claim refugee status. “The special aspect of the two cases is that the applicants were politically involved. It is fleeing the army plus other circumstances, apparently their political regime. Therefore we found it proper to grant them refugee status.” Haimi noted that refugee status is not permanent and the circumstances of the two Eritreans would be examined from time to time.

Until about a year ago, Israel did not permit Eritrean and Sudanese citizens to submit asylum requests and the state refused to examine their cases individually because of the policy not to deport any member of certain national groups. Anyone who submitted an asylum request was turned down.

After a previous amendment was passed to the law on preventing illegal entry into Israel, which was subsequently struck down by the High Court of Justice, the Hotline for Migrant Workers began to submit asylum applications on behalf of asylum seekers in Israeli custody. At first the state refused to examine the applications, but it began to do so after the Hotline went to court over the matter. In recent months the state has begun to allow Eritrean and Sudanese nationals who are not in custody to submit individual requests, but only a few have done so.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 70 percent of Eritrean citizens are recognized as refugees in North America and Europe. In response to the question as to how the gap between the rate of recognition in Israel compared to other Western countries, Haimi said: “I don’t deal with statistics from the rest of the world. We work according to the refugee convention and international law. The committee has no extraneous considerations. Every request is a world unto itself and we decide according to our understanding. All kinds of elements claim that the requests are not being willingly considered. That is not true. Anyone who disagrees with us can turn to the courts.

African asylum seekers board a bus in Tel Aviv to the Holot detention center, Jan. 26, 2014.Credit: Moti Milrod
Kibbutz Nahshon, 2013.
Rabin square in Tel Aviv, 2014.
Tel Aviv's Levinsky Park, 2012.
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Kibbutz Nahshon, 2013.Credit: Ariel Schalit
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Rabin square in Tel Aviv, 2014.Credit: Ariel Schalit
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Tel Aviv's Levinsky Park, 2012.Credit: Ariel Schalit
African migrants in Israel

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