Interior Minister Arye Dery acknowledged on Wednesday that asylum seekers from Sudan came to Israel in order to escape persecution in their home country. His remarks to the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee were the first time an Israeli interior minister has implicitly recognized the refugee claims of asylum seekers.
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Dery was responding to MK Anat Berko (Likud), who protested the granting this month of permanent resident status to 200 Sudanese from the Darfur region: “Why are we taking in people from an enemy state?” she asked.
Committee chairman MK David Amsalem (Likud) prevented asylum seekers from addressing the session, which was convened to discuss “formulating a policy to deal with the problem of infiltrators in south Tel Aviv.” He later said the purpose of this meeting was to hear from Dery, not the refugees.
Amsalem gave the floor to members of an organization that seeks the expulsion of African asylum seekers from south Tel Aviv, for 30 minutes of the 75-minute meeting.
The number of asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv is significantly lower than city and police estimates in recent years, according to updated figures from the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority. Nearly 15,000 adult asylum seekers and several thousand children live in Tel Aviv, a 20 percent drop from two and a half years ago.
City officials told the Knesset Research and Information Center a year ago that an estimated 26,000 asylum seekers lived in Tel Aviv, while the police reported there were about 30,000.
According to the Interior Ministry, 79 percent of the asylum seekers are Eritrean and 15 percent are Sudanese.
The main reasons for the decline in asylum seekers in Tel Aviv is the repatriation of many of them, combines with enforcement of prohibitions that bar former inmates of the Holot detention center in southern Israel from living or working in Tel Aviv or in Eilat.
The number of asylum seekers living in Eilat dropped from 6,000 to 1,800 in the past five years. Many have been replaced in jobs at the city’s hotels by Jordanians, who commute daily from their homes.
An estimated 38,000 asylum seekers live in Israel. Over 90 percent of them are from Eritrea or Sudan. They are required to report every few months to an Interior Ministry office to renew their temporary visas. If they have moved since their last visa renewal, they must register their change of address.
After Tel Aviv, Petah Tikva has the highest number of asylum seekers, with an estimated 2,300. More than 1,000 live in Eilat, Netanya, Ashdod, Bnei Brak and Jerusalem. Some 5,000 asylum seekers’ addresses are not registered with the authority.