Asylum seekers in Eilat, Israel's southernmost city, can no longer get service from the its Population and Immigration Authority’s office, which is demanding that they make the long trip to its office in the central city of Bnei Brak instead, about a five-hour drive by bus.
Aid groups have gone to court against this decision, charging that the agency is exploiting the coronavirus to harm asylum seekers.
The agency declined to explain the change in policy, saying it would give its “detailed response” to the court. It also declined to say whether there’s a target date for reopening the Eilat office to asylum seekers. The office is continuing to serve Israelis.
In recent years, the Interior Ministry’s immigration authority has drastically curtailed the number of offices nationwide at which asylum seekers can request service. In 2014, it cut the number from 24 to just three, in Bnei Brak, Be’er Sheva and Eilat. Then, in June 2017, it decided to bar asylum seekers from the Be’er Sheva office as well.
Following that decision, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants petitioned the High Court of Justice. The petition was eventually withdrawn, but only after the state promised not to close the Eilat office to asylum seekers, since Eilat is so far away from Bnei Brak.
At the height of the coronavirus crisis this spring, the immigration authority, like many government agencies, closed all its offices and provided service in urgent cases only. At that time, the agency told the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants that asylum seekers with urgent needs should contact the Ramle office.
On May 5, the agency resumed operations. But the Hotline discovered that the Eilat branch was no longer willing to serve asylum seekers, even though Eilat has the largest community of asylum seekers outside the Tel Aviv area. Instead, it was referring them to the Bnei Brak office.
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Because of the coronavirus crisis, the immigration authority also changed the way asylum seekers renew their residency visas. In March, it gave all asylum seekers an automatic 60-day extension on their visas. Also, instead of requiring a personal meeting with an agency staffer, asylum seekers and their employers can now renew the visas online.
Nevertheless, issues sometimes arise that require a personal meeting – for instance, if an asylum seeker lost his visa, which is what happened to Fatin Atbarak, an asylum seeker living in Eilat. She and her husband, Barhenne Brina, have one child living with them as well as others in Eritrea whom they are supporting financially.
Brina said that because of Atbarak’s health problems, she typically worked only a few hours a day, cleaning for both hotels and the Eilat municipality. But after she lost her visa in April, she could no longer work legally. Moreover, she lost access to her bank account, because the bank requires a valid visa.
“She can’t withdraw money from her account,” he said through a translator. “Because of that, we’re dependent solely on my salary.”
The Hotline tried to solve the problem without Atbarak having to travel to Bnei Brak, but to no avail.
According to the Hotline, the Eilat office of CIMI – the Center for International Migration and Integration has made appointments for around 20 asylum seekers in Bnei Brak over the last month alone, while 10 asylum seekers told the organization that they would have trouble getting to Bnei Brak.
Going to Bnei Brak costs them at least a day of work and travel fare, the Hotline said. “This is unreasonable, especially when the office in Eilat is working and receiving Israelis,” it added.
The immigration authority said that thousands of asylum seekers had received automatic visa extensions due to the coronavirus, while those with specific problems were referred to the agency’s enforcement administration to arrange a solution. “A few applicants who didn’t agree to arrange a solution filed a petition,” it added, and a “detailed response to their cases” will be given in court.