Announcing New Criteria, Israel to Revisit All Asylum Requests by Eritreans

Rights group says state's 'aim is to continue avoid granting recognition to refugees according to international law'

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Asylum seekers in Petah Tikva, February 2019
Asylum seekers in Petah Tikva, February 2019Credit: Ilan Assayag

Israel will reexamine all requests from Eritrean asylum seekers, including 3,000 that were previously turned down, a decision by a special committee said on Tuesday, as it announced new assessment criteria. 

Activists representing asylum seekers blasted the new regulations however, saying they still did not live up to Israel's international obligations.

“The government’s response does not appear to change anything in the position it has taken up to now – a position that was already rejected by the appeals court, with the aim to continue avoid granting recognition to Eritrean asylum seekers as refugees according to international law,” said a spokesperson for Tel Aviv University's Refugee Rights Clinic, which filed the appeal that led to the ruling

>> Read more: Eritreans in Israel may finally be recognized as refugees | Opinion ■ Israeli authorities are severely violent toward asylum seekers, NGO report warns

Up to now, assessments of asylum requests were based upon a 2013 professional opinion by the Population and Immigration Authority’s legal advisor, Daniel Salomon, which stated that requests that hinged on claims of draft-dodging or desertion alone are not enough to grant asylum.

Following a 2018 court ruling, the Jerusalem District Court called on the government to clarify what additional criteria were required in order to recognize a refugee, and in January 2019, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit instructed the officials at the Population Authority to review the issue.

Now the government has informed the court that after working in tandem with the Interior Minister’s advisory committee on refugee affairs, two new criteria were set for asylum requests, after being approved by the attorney general and Interior Minister Arye Dery. The committee decided the basic rule would not change: Desertion or dodging of military or national service would only be considered towards the request if coupled with at least one of the two other conditions.

An asylum seeker at the Knesset speaks to Israeli Interior Minister Arye Dery, January 29, 2018.Credit: Emil Salman

'Stop trampling UN convention'

The first additional criterion says that refugee status will be granted if an asylum seeker proves that his military desertion had “an ongoing and very clear ideological dimension.” This category would include someone who voiced political opposition to the regime numerous times, was active in resistance activity, went to prison for opposing the regime, is known as a political figure, and so on. This criterion is much stricter than what is stated in the UN Refugee Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees: That political persecution is examined not from the perspective of the persecuted but of the persecutor.

For instance, if desertion from the army is equivalent to treason and cause for persecution in Eritrea, even if the asylum seeker hasn’t explicitly expressed a political opinion, he must be recognized as a refugee. This is called an “imputed political opinion” and the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants says that most Eritrean asylum seekers in the world obtain recognition as refugees on this basis.

The second criterion says a person will be recognized as a refugee when added to the claim of desertion are “circumstances that together with the dodging/desertion form cause for persecution, even if the additional circumstances do not in themselves establish a ‘full’ claim for asylum on the basis of one of the causes cited in the refugee convention…” The government explains that under this criterion, various circumstances would be examined in which the asylum seeker was or would be vulnerable to serious harm in Eritrea “for a unique background, or for having been deprived of basic rights due to these circumstances.”

It is unclear what the difference is between this criterion and the Population Authority’s position as per the original 2013 opinion, which was rejected by the court.

The state says that in addition, the asylum seeker must prove the existence of a “well-founded fear” of persecution in his home country, which includes a subjective element of “a feeling of fear” and an objective element of “the fear being well-founded.” The state adds that the burden of proof in this matter is on the asylum seeker and that for this purpose he must provide all the evidence at his disposal. If he cannot provide evidence but his statement is viewed as credible, an incomplete evidentiary basis may be sufficient.

Eritrean asylum seekers, who entered Israel illegally during the past years, hold placards showing their compatriots who they say were killed after being deported to Eritrea, during a protest against Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

>> Read more: Israel approved 0.09% of asylum requests over past nine years ■ Stranger danger: How Israel smashed Hungary to win the world's anti-refugee crown | Opinion

The Hotline stated: “The government’s response just goes to show the profound failure of the dysfunctional Israeli asylum system. Rather than relate to the appeals court ruling that desertion from the Eritrean army may be cause for refugee status, the government announces a ‘new policy’ that is essentially more of the same: more long years that Eritrean asylum seekers will continue waiting for their applications to be reviewed; years in which they will be denied medical and social rights; years in which the ‘Deposit Law’ will continue to steal 20 percent of their wages; and years in which they will continue to live in uncertainty. The ‘new criteria’ set by the state do not meet the demands of international law and do not constitute a real change from Israel’s current present asylum policy, which created an outrageous recognition rate of less than 1 percent! The time has come for the State of Israel to stop wasting the asylum seekers’ precious time and trampling the UN Refugee Convention, which it was one of the first countries to sign.”

To date, 16,149 asylum requests have been submitted by citizens of Eritrea. Of those, 5,502 were rejected (including an estimated 2,000 who have since left Israel and whose requests will therefore not be reconsidered), 10,647 are still pending and only 13 were approved.

In a statement to the court, the state said that the publication of the new criteria applies to the handling of all asylum requests from Eritreans, and therefore it will reexamine all of the asylum requests that were rejected.

The state also told the court that “A study of the sources of information shows that in Eritrea there is an undemocratic regime that violates human rights. The scope and degree of the human rights violations are not entirely clear, with different information sources from recent years often presenting a factual picture that is not uniform regarding the nature of military and national service in Eritrea and the penalty applied there. Then there is also the peace accord that was recently signed between Ethiopia and Eritrea, whose implications for the situation have yet to become sufficiently clear.”