Interior Min. Sets Up Unit to Grant Refugee Status

Since 2007, 10,000 refugees have crossed Israel's southern border; Ministry official: 'We as a state are taking responsibility.'

The Interior Ministry has set up a unit to question and investigate refugees from Africa - the government's first big step to deal with the wave of migrants entering from the southern border.

The move comes after the state predicted that refugees will continue to arrive in the next few years and nothing can be done to stop them.

The State Prosecution recently told the High Court of Justice that the ministry's Population Administration has hired 20 employees who speak languages common in Africa, such as Arabic and Amharic, and is hiring more.

The unit is a step in the Population Administration's process of taking over the handling of refugees from the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR.

In developed countries the government usually handles refugees, supervised by the UNHCR, while in the developing world the UNHCR does so. In Israel, the process of requesting asylum and recognizing refugees has been carried out by the UNHCR, among other reasons because at first only very few refugees entered the country.

Since 2007, 10,000 refugees have arrived in Israel through the southern border, overwhelming the UNHCR with asylum requests.

As a first step, the Interior Ministry has taken over the refugees' identification and registration process. "We as a state are taking responsibility and beginning to deal with the situation," an official said.

Attorney Yonatan Berman of the Hotline for Migrant Workers commended the government for taking responsibility for the refugees, but is worried about the Interior Ministry's sometimes harsh treatment of foreigners.

A recent petition debated in Jerusalem's District Court demonstrates the ministry's attitude toward refugees. The petitioner was a member of an anti-government organization in Ethiopia, who fled that country after two members of her family had been murdered. The UNHCR rejected her request for asylum and the Interior Ministry refused her request to reveal the UNHCR's reasons for denying her request.

The ministry not only prevented her from understanding how the decision that determined her fate was made, it denied her the possibility of taking legal measures to stay in Israel.

The court's president, Moussia Arad, instructed the ministry in a precedent-setting ruling to reveal the arguments.

"The petitioner has a real interest in finding what the UNHCR's position is. Without knowing what the reasons for the UNHCR's recommendation were, the petitioner would not be able to examine them and if necessary, respond to them and prevent mistakes," Arad said.

UNHCR officials said the new unit has been cooperating with them. Even refugees caught passing themselves off as Sudanese, in an attempt to obtain refugee status, were not arrested but permitted to apply for asylum on the basis of their real identity and circumstances, they said.

Had the unit started arresting people, an official said, nobody would have come to register at its offices.

At a later stage the unit will also interrogate and investigate the migrants to determine who is eligible for refugee status.