Israeli Immigration Chief Says Nixed UN Plan for Asylum Seekers Is the Best

In early April, Netanyahu backed out of a deal to resettle 16,250 asylum seekers in Canada, Italy and elsewhere, while a similar number could receive legal status in Israel

Asylum seekers protesting in front of the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya against their pending deportation, February 2018.
\ Moti Milrod

The agreement with the UN refugee agency that the government walked away from a day after signing is the best solution for the asylum seeker issue, Israel’s immigration authority chief said Wednesday.

“There is no better solution,” said the director general of the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority, Shlomo Mor-Yosef, adding that he does not envision a scenario in which “everyone will leave or receive status” in Israel.

>> Read more: Israel's bureaucratic trick against asylum seekers ■ How to treat asylum seekers: A lesson to Israel from Canada 

On April 2, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that an agreement had been signed with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UNHCR, to resettle 16,250 asylum seekers in Canada, Italy, Germany and elsewhere, while a similar number could receive legal status in Israel. But Netanyahu backed out due to a backlash from his political base.

Mor-Yosef also told reporters Wednesday that Israel was reexamining the criteria for recognizing Eritrean asylum seekers, and that asylum seekers should receive access to social welfare services.

He also backed the state’s recent denial of visas to migrant workers having a romantic relationship with other migrant workers, and warned against harming relations with Thailand and violating workers’ rights following the finance minister’s decision to pull out of a pension deal.

The United Nations, meanwhile, has reiterated that the April 2 agreement is still on the table. “I’m an ardent supporter of the agreement with the UN; I was party to its drafting,” Mor-Yosef said.

“I can’t see a situation in which everyone receives status here, and I can’t envision a scenario in which they all leave, so this is a compromise. Compromises make no one happy. But the agreement outlines a solution for their situation.”

He said the asylum seekers were in the “best situation they’ve ever had in Israel – even though it’s not a good one.”

Mor-Yosef, who has been in his post since in mid-2017, said that currently “there is no plan for them to leave Israel, they’re not being held in Holot, they can work, and their children are all in the education system.” He was  referring to the Holot detention facility in the south.

Until recently, Mor-Yosef headed an interministerial task force that looked into welfare and health services for asylum seekers. Asylum seekers currently do not receive welfare services other than in cases where lives are at risk.

The task force recommended in July that welfare agencies be partly opened to asylum seekers, especially the particularly vulnerable such as the homeless, children at risk, people with disabilities and battered women. The Finance Ministry has approved the plan, which will cost 28 million shekels ($7.5 million), but the interior and social affairs ministers haven’t yet approved the task force’s proposals.

“The social services they receive must be expanded,” Mor-Yosef said. “They’ve been here for eight to 10 years, so we need to ensure that they have the minimal conditions to live.”

Regarding statements by right-wing politicians – including Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked – that the peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia makes it possible to deport Eritreans back home, Mor-Yosef said that “the Eritreans haven’t yet changed the rules on the military draft, which is still unlimited [in time]. If they go back to time-limited military service, we’ll consider changing our policy. Today we clearly can’t send them there.”

Mor-Yosef also referred to Israel’s decision in October to no longer grant so-called humanitarian status to asylum seekers from Sudan’s Darfur region and to instead examine each asylum request on an individual basis.

Since mid-2016, Israel has granted humanitarian status to 800 asylum seekers from Sudan, a status equivalent to refugee status. It lets asylum seekers work and receive benefits such as health insurance; they are also allowed to exit and re-enter the country.

“The prime minister decided that there is a need to check each asylum request separately,” Mor-Yosef said. “We’ll first examine the asylum requests of 100 to 150 people in order to establish criteria under which we’ll decide how to look over the requests. I believe there are people within that population who are eligible for refugee status, which is why we’re conducting this examination.”

There are currently around 3,500 Darfuris in Israel; some 2,300 have requested asylum, but all but one have waited years without receiving a response.

On the decision to remove group protection from Congolese citizens and deport them back to the Democratic Republic of Congo – a decision a court suspended this week – Mor-Yosef said: “We removed their group protection status following a Foreign Ministry recommendation. The geopolitical situation in the country allows them to return, and we are reexamining all asylum requests now.”

Speaking about Israel’s denial of visas for migrant workers in relationships with other migrant workers, Mor-Yosef said the immigration authority opposes cases in which “the relationship is formalized such as marriage or a child. They can set up their family units back in their own countries.”

He also referred to the decision by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon under pressure from farmers to delay the implementation of an agreement ensuring social benefits for Thai workers in Israel. “There was a lengthy parliamentary process. The farmers said it would cost them, but we overcame the agricultural lobby and it was approved,” Mor-Yosef said.

“But the finance minister’s consent is needed, and he gave it when the process was started, but he ended up writing a letter saying he was withdrawing his support. It’s a harsh violation of workers’ rights and it harms our relationship with Thailand. There are about 25,000 Thai workers in Israel. Kahlon’s refusal means the legislation hasn’t been completed and we’ll need to redo it in the next Knesset.”