Banking on Deportations, Israel Admits to Stalling on Asylum Requests

Israel hopes Supreme Court approves policy of deporting Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers to deport Uganda and Rwanda

African asylum seekers at a detention facility in southern Israel.
Daniel Bar-On

The Interior Ministry admitted on Wednesday that it is delaying its response to asylum requests from Eritrean and Sudanese nationals in the hopes that the Supreme Court will allow it to deport them to Uganda and Rwanda, thereby obviating the need to decide whether they are entitled to refugee status.

The assumption is that if the court approves this policy, the number of asylum seekers remaining in Israel will decline, Daniel Salomon of the Interior Ministry’s legal department told a session of the State Control Committee.

“Then it won’t be necessary to go through a complex process of distinguishing among different categories of Eritreans and the like,” Salomon said. “The policy will depend on the court’s ruling, when we know how many people are expected to remain here and how many to leave. The Darfuri issue will also be clarified when we know whether we need to grant residency on a humanitarian basis to larger numbers or not,” he added.

“You say that the response regarding Darfuris will depend on how many a third country will or won’t accept,” retorted acting committee Chairman Eyal Ben-Reuven, of the opposition Zionist Union. “I want to relate to whether a person does or does not deserve the rights of a refugee. If he deserves them, he should get them. How is this connected to a third country?”

Salomon also referred to the decision to grant temporary residency to 200 Darfuris. He noted that a team from the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority is about to submit to the interior minster its recommended criteria for temporary residency status.

MK Dov Khenin of the opposition Joint List said he welcomed this decision but wondered why it was limited to 200 people. “There is genocide taking place in Darfur, with ethnic cleansing and serious persecution. We have around 3,000 refugees from that region. The Interior Minister wants to grant temporary residence with some benefits to 200. I welcome that, but why 200? What about the 201th asylum seeker, how is he different from the 199th?”

Dganit Shai of the State Comptroller’s Office told the committee that State Comptroller Joseph Shapira is investigating the immigration agency’s handling of asylum request, and the results are expected to be included in the government watchdog’s next annual report, in May 2018.

State Control Committee members from opposition parties criticized the immigration agency for rejecting nearly all the asylum requests from Eritreans that it has examined, for failing to respond to applications and for completely ignoring asylum applications from people from Sudan’s Darfur region. Israel has granted refugee status to fewer than 0.1 percent of asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan, compared to double-digit percentage points for these people in other Western states.

The head of the immigration agency’s enforcement department, Yossi Edelstein, who is also in charge of its Refugee Status Determination Unit, told the committee that the unit is overwhelmed, due to the large number of asylum requests it has received in the past two years from citizens of Georgia and Ukraine. He noted that since 2009, when authority for handling asylum requests was transferred from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to the RSD, the unit has received 49,000 applications from around the world. Of these, 30,000 have come in the past two years, and 17,000 were from Ukraine and Georgia, combined.

Edelstein noted that the RSD has processed 21,000 requests, with 28,000 still to go.

“How many were turned down?” asked MK Yael German of the opposition Yesh Atid party, but Edelstein repeatedly evaded the question.

MK Yael Cohen Paran (Zionist Union) demanded that he answer the question. “Most of them were rejected,” Edelstein said.

Edelstein said the immigration agency has changed its processing of asylum requests, enabling a speedier rejection of applications by Georgians. It is waiting for approval from the foreign and justice ministries to apply this method to requests from Ukrainian citizens.

German asked Edelstein to relate to a story in Haaretz, according to which the immigration agency commissioned a survey on conditions in Eritrea from the Israeli Immigration Policy Center, which advocates the expulsion of asylum seekers, without issuing a request for proposal.

“I don’t read Haaretz,” Edelstein said, adding that he was unfamiliar with the topic.

“Everything is done according to law. We have contracts with nongovernmental organizations with slightly different agendas that are 20 times the size and no newspaper has ever said a word,” said Salomon, from the Interior Minister’s legal department. “This is a small NGO and a tiny sum earmarked for research, and all of a sudden the media is on top of us. This is research; no one writes reports for us,” Salomon said.

Human rights organizations issued a joint statement after the committee session ended, sharply criticizing the immigration agency. “The impression was that they were handling these applications but were overwhelmed by the numbers. The reality is that there is no real treatment of these applications. Most of them are buried and remain unanswered and others are unlawfully denied, in a sweeping, collective and derisive manner,” the statement said.

A representative of Amnesty International Israel said the agency was “not fulfilling its role and was making a mockery of the courts and the Knesset. There is no need for more manpower, only for goodwill, with proper examination of these applications and approval of refugee status when appropriate.”

Meanwhile, Interior Minister Arye Dery announced on Wednesday that he plans to appoint Prof. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, who until about six months ago was director of the National Insurance Institute, as the new director of the Population, Immigration and Border Authority. Mor-Yosef will replace Amnon Shmueli, who has served as the agency’s acting director for the past half year.