The committee that decides on asylum applications from foreign nationals in the country hasn’t met in over six months, even though more than 10,000 applications are awaiting its decision.
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Last June, attorney Avi Himi left his position as head of the interior minister’s advisory committee on refugees after five years on the job. About a month later, Haaretz reported that then-Interior Minister Silvan Shalom had promised to get the committee up and running again “as soon as possible.”
But in fact, he still hadn’t appointed a replacement for Himi as of last month, when Shalom resigned due to sexual harassment allegations. And his successor as interior minister, Arye Dery, will start work only this week.
By law, if the committee chairman is absent, the Justice Ministry’s representative on the committee takes his place. Currently, that representative is the ministry’s legal adviser, Lea Rakover. But she hasn’t convened the panel once since Himi quit.
An asylum request can be forwarded to the minister for approval only by the full committee or its chairman. Thus, with the committee inactive, the requests have simply been piling up unanswered.
Altogether, the panel met only five times last year, with its last meeting on June 24. Moreover, even when it was working, the pace at which it examined asylum requests was very slow, a fact criticized by the High Court of Justice.
As a result, according to data from the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority, there are now 10,571 asylum requests awaiting a response, compared to 5,558 as of February 5, 2015 – nearly double.
The committee responded to only 909 asylum requests last year. Of these, all but two were rejected. The two applicants who did receive refugee status were both from Eritrea.
No responses to Darfur applicants
A sizable portion of all asylum requests come from Eritrean and Sudanese nationals, many of whom are being kept in the meantime at the open detention facility in Holot. So far, the state hasn’t responded to a single asylum request by residents of Sudan’s Darfur region, even though some were filed more than three years ago.
The last time the state revealed data on asylum requests was in February 2015, in response to a High Court petition. At that time, it said that in the five and a half years from July 2009 to February 2015, 17,778 asylum requests had been filed in Israel.
Nevertheless, only 45 applicants – 0.25 percent – were granted asylum. That is a very low proportion compared to other Western countries.
The acceptance rate was particularly low for Eritreans and Sudanese. Of the 5,573 applicants for asylum from these countries, only four, all Eritreans, were granted refugee status, a rate of 0.07 percent.
At the time, the state said it expected all of the 3,519 outstanding applications by Eritreans and Sudanese to be answered within a year. In fact, however, only about a quarter of those applicants received responses last year.
The head of the committee that examines asylum requests is appointed by the interior minister in consultation with the justice minister. The committee chairman must be either a former judge or someone legally qualified to be a district court judge, and he cannot be a civil servant.
Himi was appointed by then-Interior Minister Eli Yishai in 2010. His appointment was protested by human rights groups, mainly because he had no background in asylum law.
Last June, shortly before Himi resigned, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel asked Shalom to choose his replacement via a public tender. Should the minister choose the new chairman on his own, ACRI argued, it might raise suspicions, whether justified or not, that the appointee “was making decisions not based on his own best professional and legal understanding, but based on the interior minister’s policy, or that these considerations were being intermingled.”
In August, the Justice Ministry responded to ACRI’s letter, but did not address the tender issue. It said merely that the Interior Ministry was carefully considering its choice of the next committee head.
High Court: 'Disproportionate harm'
That same month, the High Court of Justice ruled that holding asylum seekers at Holot for 20 months, the maximum period specified by law at the time, was unconstitutional, as it disproportionately violated their rights. It suggested a maximum period of one year.
In her opinion, Justice Esther Hayut also criticized the way the state handled asylum applications in general. “The disproportionate harm done to those held at the residential facility is heightened by the very slow pace at which the state handles asylum requests submitted to the RSD unit, and also by the negligible percentage of requests that the state has approved to date,” she wrote.