Israel has approved just one out of 3,000 asylum requests from Eritrean refugees in the past six months, reviewing a mere 103 cases despite being ordered to examine the cases by the attorney general two years ago.
The Interior Ministry’s advisory committee on refugee affairs, however, vowed to reexamine all applications as quickly as possible.
Almost two years ago, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit ordered the committee to reexamine 3,000 requests for asylum that had been previously turned down, and another 10,000 cases that had never been examined, after the government passed new assessment criteria.
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Around the same time, two additional chairpersons were appointed to the committee to address its heavy caseload, but only one person ended up chairing the committee for half a year, after one resigned and the other's appointment was delayed for months. In addition, at least one chairperson worked less than half the hours required by his contract for years.
In the two years since the government changed its criteria, the committee has reached a final decision in only 706 cases, and only 15 applicants received refugee status.
In March, committee representatives noted that it was taking a year and a half for an asylum request for refugee status to reach one of the three chairpersons from the time it was filed.
According to internal committee records from the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority, 1,757 old asylum requests from Eritreans are awaiting reconsideration by the committee’s chairman in an expedited process.
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The unit responsible for asylum seekers at the Population Authority, which then refers the requests to the advisory committee, has a total of 30,000 pending requests for political asylum. According to regulations, the committee meets every month and at every meeting they consider between five and 10 asylum requests.
Between 100 and 120 cases a month on average are sent to the committee chairman – who was appointed by the former interior minister, Arye Dery. Dozens of additional applications for asylum are received every month.
In an effort to increase the number of cases handled by the committee, particularly those handled through an expedited procedure, two additional chairpersons were appointed last year – to hear cases simultaneously. But the backlog of cases was not reduced because for six months, the committee operated with only one chairman, a source on the committee said. In June 2019, chairman Avi Himi stepped down after being elected the president of the Israel Bar Association. The appointment of another chairman, Doron Barzilay, a former bar association president, was held up due to a delay in Finance Ministry approval.
The committee now has three chairpersons – lawyers Zion Amir, Efrat Kaplan and Barzilay. At a meeting in March, when committee representatives hoped to approve Barzilay’s appointment, they noted that the Population and Immigration Authority was in violation of its commitment to Attorney General Mendelblit regarding the case review process.
In addition, it turns out that one committee head has worked fewer hours than the Population Authority had anticipated. According to meeting minutes, chairman Zion Amir worked only a third of the hours required of him in 2019 and 2020. His contract stipulated 600 hours in 2019 and 660 in 2020.
Amir said that the advisory committee that he heads works “efficiently, professionally and with dedication,” and added that the number of applications that the committee has heard has consistently grown in recent years.
For its part, the Population and Immigration Authority said: “The examination of asylum requests is a complex and sensitive process, which is taken very seriously by all the professional staff – and as a result, sometimes it takes longer than expected. Today, 12,740 asylum seekers from Eritrea reside in Israel and as part of the process of reexamination, according to the guidelines, opinions have been written in the cases of 2,453 asylum seekers. Of them, 706 individual decisions have already been issued, of which 15 were recognized as refugees.”