Lawyers Petition High Court Over Head of Asylum Seeker Panel

New government appointment has no background in fields relevant to handling asylum seeker's cases.

File photo: Two asylum seekers walk past a fence at the Holot detention facility in the Negev.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

A law firm that represents asylum seekers petitioned the High Court of Justice last week against the appointment of a new head of the government's advisory panel on refugees, saying the appointee lacks the relevant background and will have no time to do the job.

The appointee, Zion Amir, is one of Israel’s leading criminal defense attorneys, but has no background in refugee law, international human rights law or administrative law, the petition said. Moreover, his heavy case load will make it hard for him to do his job properly.

The Interior Ministry's advisory committee on refugees is responsible for examining all asylum requests submitted in Israel, and only the chairman or full committee can recommend that such a request be accepted or rejected. Therefore, the petition noted, the chairman cannot delegate the job of reviewing the thousands of asylum applications. Someone without much time to devote to the job is not a good choice for the chairman’s post, it argued.

The petition, filed by attorney Tal Steiner of the Tomer Warsha firm, said the firm had asked Interior Minister Arye Dery several times to explain his reasons for appointing Amir, but never received an answer.

The petition also charged that the appointment was made without a tender via a nontransparent and non-egalitarian process.

By law, the chairman must be either a retired judge or someone qualified to serve as a district court judge, and cannot be a civil servant. The Interior Ministry said Amir is a top-flight lawyer who meets all the legal requirements and is an extremely suitable choice.

The previous chairman, Avi Himi, was also a leading criminal defense attorney. He resigned last June, and in the almost 10 months between his resignation and Amir’s appointment in March, the panel didn’t meet at all. Consequently, as of the start of this year, more than 10,000 asylum applications were awaiting a response.

When Dery announced Amir’s appointment in March, he added that he planned to appoint a second committee with its own chairman to help deal with the application backlog. Last week, Haaretz reported that Dery had asked Himi to head this second panel, even though both the Supreme Court and human rights groups had criticized the original committee’s slow pace of work under his leadership, as well as the fact that it rejected a very high proportion of asylum requests.