By the Numbers: Israel Recognizes Less Than 1% of Asylum Seekers

Israel has only officially given refugee status to a handful of people over the years. Where have they come from? And how does Israel compare to the rest of the Western world?

Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber
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Where do Israel's refugees come from?
Where do Israel's refugees come from?
Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber

Israel has only recognized some 200 refugees since signing the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees – making it one of the least welcoming countries in the Western world when it comes to granting asylum.

Between July 2009 and August 2013, for example (this is the latest period for which full figures are available) Israel granted asylum to only 26 people. This, despite the fact that there are around 50,000 asylum seekers in Israel today, and 17,000 applied for asylum during this period.

So who are Israel's asylum seekers? According to the Immigration, Population and Border Authority, most crossed the border after 2007, and nearly all are from Sudan and Eritrea (making up 92 percent combined).

Israel's official treatment of these asylum seekers, particularly those from Sudan and Eritrea, has come under heavy scrutiny in recent years. At a mass protest by asylum seekers in January – one of a series where tens of thousands marched to demand legal status and equal rights – one protester spoke to Haaretz about her legal status in Israel: "You go to the Interior Ministry to get a visa, there are long lines, in the end you don’t get a visa. You’re on the street, they catch you without a visa - you go to jail."

To better understand just how few refugees Israel takes in compared to other industrialized countries, Haaretz looked at United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) statistics for 2012, which is the last year for which complete figures are available. According to figures from Israel’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority, Israel recognized a grand total of 6 refugees that year. That's 0.55 percent of total asylum claims in 2012. For the entire period from July 2009 and August 2013, that figure drops to 0.15 percent.

By comparison, France recognized 7,384 refugees (7.5 percent of total asylum claims) in 2012, and Germany approved 8,764 applications (11.2 percent). The United States and Turkey proved more welcoming than most, recognizing 25,268 refugees (35.7 percent) and 10,892 (62 percent), respectively.

That said, the situation in Israel is complicated, and there's more to the picture than the numbers alone show. In addition, along with asylum granted under the Convention, Israel has accepted groups of refugees on an individual basis, including around 100 Bosnian Muslims in the '90s; a few hundred Vietnamese, known as “boat people,” in the '70s; and nearly 6,000 members of the South Lebanese Army and their families after Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. In 2007, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave exceptional temporary residence to around 500 Darfurian asylum seekers.

Click here for three interviews with some of Israel's refugees and for more of Alona Ferber's World Refugee Day coverage.

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