New UN Refugee Representative: If Israel Doesn't Act Now, It Will Fail This Generation

In his first interview since taking office, Damtew Dessalegne says he expected Israel, a country that took in Jewish refugees from around the world, to be more accepting of asylum seekers

Damtew Dessalegne, the UN Refugee Agency's new representative in Israel, November 2018.
Ilan Assayag

The UN Refugee Agency’s new representative in Israel says he’s greatly concerned about asylum seekers’ uncertain status in the country – an intolerable situation for anyone who believes in humanism and human dignity, as he put it.  

Speaking in his first interview since taking office, Damtew Dessalegne said this week’s killing in Tel Aviv of a 12-year-old Eritrean asylum seeker, allegedly by her mother’s former boyfriend, only underlined the urgency of the migrants’ plight.

Asked whether the Israeli government, a sponsor of the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention, was meeting its obligations under the document, Dessalegne said Israel “is trying, but we expect Israel to do more than it is doing.”

Dessalegne noted that Israel was the only Western country from which the UN Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, had offered to resettle refugees in other Western countries.

On April 2, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that an agreement had been signed with the UNHCR to resettle some of the asylum seekers in Israel in Canada, Italy, Germany and elsewhere. But Netanyahu backed out less than a day later due to a backlash from his political base.

It was difficult to find other countries to accept them, Dessalegne said. The UNHCR’s agreement was the best that Israel could ask for, he said, expressing the hope that Israel would drop the poisonous political rhetoric and resume its commitment to the agreement.

Referring to a bill that would let the Knesset revisit aspects of the asylum-seeker issue that the Supreme Court had ruled unconstitutional, he said Israel could bypass the court but not international law.

He cast doubt over whether the Population and Immigration Authority’s efforts to encourage asylum seekers, many of them from Eritrea, to leave the country voluntarily really reflected free will. He also cautioned that the July peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea could take years to pave the way for the repatriation of Eritreans in Israel.

For now, the case of 12-year-old Silvana Tzegai was telling.

“Absolutely nothing could justify the taking away of this beautiful child’s life. Her murder might have been prevented, maybe,” Dessalegne said. “But this is not the time to analyze and argue what could have been done. We should rather talk about what should be done now to make sure that such tragedies never happen again.”

He added: “What Silvana’s bereaved parents and their fellow refugees and asylum seekers are asking us is not to pity them, but to see them as human beings endowed with rights, dignities and abilities. They are not helpless people who totally depend on help they are given.

“To the contrary, they are often people with a strong determination to survive and cope, which is why they became refugees in the first place. They bring or are eager to acquire valuable skills to be able to support themselves and their families by hard work. 

“And, if given the chance and they are supported to nurture and realize their hopes and potential, each can make a positive contribution to the host society – economically, socially and culturally. If we do not act now together to find solutions for these refugees and asylum seekers – solutions built on rights, compassion and our shared humanity – we will have failed this generation of Silvana’s peers and those to come.”

Asylum seekers in Israel wait in line for government services as a child plays in the foreground.
Tomer Appelbaum

On April 2, the UNHCR believed the situation looked brighter. After years of Israel trying to expel the asylum seekers, not examining asylum requests and granting very few people refugee status, Israel and the UNHCR signed an agreement to resettle more than 16,000 Eritreans and Sudanese in other Western countries. A similar number would be granted proper legal status in Israel.

But then came Netanyahu’s flip-flop. Since then, the prime minister and his cabinet have reverted to seeking an expulsion, though the UNHCR believes the April deal is still on the table.

“As far as I’m concerned, the offer is still on. It may not be forever, not because we are going to take it away, but our resettlement partners may divert their attention elsewhere,” Dessalegne said. This was the first time his agency was offering an OECD member state, a developed country, to resettle refugees elsewhere.

Calling it “a very generous offer,” Dessalegne said it was made “understanding the situation, understanding that the refugees are the ones paying the price, and a heavy price for that matter.”

The global perspective

Asked whether it was difficult to find Western countries willing to accept the refugees from Israel, he said “very hard. How can we justify [this] when there are hundreds of thousands of refugees in far worse situations in Kenya, in Ethiopia, in Chad, in Pakistan?”

Referring to the asylum seekers, he said the countries “said if this is what it takes to bring some relief to these some people, so be it.” They were willing to make an exception and work with the government “to find a solution once and for all.”

Dessalegne added that from a global perspective, the numbers in Israel were small. “Forty thousand people for a highly developed country, a regional superpower … and a country and people who know what being a refugee means … is a manageable number,” he said.

If the Israeli government decided tomorrow that it was resuming its agreements with the UNHCR, the other Western countries would surely find room for the asylum seekers, Dessalegne added.

In Netanyahu’s April 2 announcement that was later rescinded, it was the only time his office released a statement referring to the asylum seekers as “migrants,” not “infiltrators.”

Dessalegne expressed discomfort over statements such as a 2012 comment by Miri Regev, who is now culture minister. She called the Sudanese in Israel “a cancer in our body.”

A woman and child arrive at a separate preschool for asylum seeker children in Netanya, 2018.
Ilan Assayag

“Language matters, and the way we describe other people matters,” Dessalegne said. “We cannot just throw around any terminology and any description to characterize people who have left their countries, not to seek adventure but simply because they couldn’t live and thrive in their own homeland. If these people had had the possibility to remain where they were, with their countries, with their communities, and with their friends, they wouldn’t have come.”

He added: “What is at issue is … a human rights issue, therefore by describing these people the way some politicians have described them is an attack against human rights, in a way against human dignity … [calling them] bogus asylum seekers and cheaters.”

As he put it, “The refugees will not go away just because one calls them by other names. For us, they remain refugees no matter what.”

Dessalegne has spent 25 years at the UNHCR based in Geneva, Romania, Egypt, Italy, Armenia and Cyprus. He said he expected Israel, a country with a “vibrant democracy” and a “very engaged, active civil society” that took in Jewish refugees from around the world to be more accepting of refugees.

“What fascinated me is the fusion of so many cultures and traditions and people coming from different backgrounds” and with a shared Jewish heritage, he said. “A melting pot .…So when you see this, you would expect that refugees could easily fit in.”

In 1951, after the chaos of World War II, a conference was held in Geneva adopting the Refugee Convention. It defined a refugee and the signatory countries’ obligations for protecting refugees on their territory.

The newly established State of Israel was a sponsor, but now Dessalegne said it was doubtful Israel was meeting its obligations.

“Asylum is about showing understanding, showing you care for these people,” he said, adding that “Israeli authorities were part of the drafting committee for the convention, so they know more than we do [about] how the convention came into [being] and why – and its value. I therefore trust the government this time around will not do anything that contravenes the convention.”

He said the approach toward asylum seekers didn’t need to focus on the convention, it could focus on humanitarian obligations in general. The status quo is unacceptable, he said; it isn’t good for the asylum seekers or Israel.

The July peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea after two decades of war got some Israeli politicians saying the time had come to repatriate Eritreans living in Israel. “One of the solutions that we are now looking at is peace, a welcome peace, between our friend, Ethiopia, and Eritrea,” Netanyahu said at a conference of his Likud party.

Dessalegne said he agreed with Netanyahu that the peace agreement would eventually provide conditions for people to return, but it wouldn’t be tomorrow and maybe not next year; it could take years.

Closed-door policy

In May, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira harshly criticized the Population and Immigration Authority for an open secret: Asylum requests are simply not being examined. According to the comptroller, over the previous nine years, only 52 of 55,433 asylum requests filed had been granted, including 10 requests from Sudanese and Eritreans. At the end of last year, 29,783 requests, more than half of those filed since 2009, remained pending.

Dessalegne said he had a hard time understanding Israel’s economic or diplomatic interest in the policy. “It’s good to know at the earliest possible [time] who is a refugee and who is not, so that you know how to deal with that individual,” he said. “It’s good not to keep people in a legal and social limbo for a long period of time, because that will not solve the problem.”

Israel provides asylum seekers with welfare services only when their very survival is in danger. In countries where asylum seekers have access to welfare services, the failure to rule on asylum requests turns the migrants into a financial burden, Dessalegne said.

The more they remain in the system and have problems finding work, the more they rely on the welfare system. The moment they receive official recognition, they have better options to find jobs and support themselves. They pay taxes and contribute to the national economy.

Either way, when expulsion isn’t an option, one of the Population and Immigration Authority’s approaches is “voluntary departure.” As a result, in 2016 and last year, 1,136 asylum seekers left for Uganda and 376 for Rwanda. In the two years before that, about 2,600 left Israel for those two countries combined. From January through May this year, 195 left for what was referred to as “a third country.”

But, according to a number of accounts, contrary to the refugee convention, the asylum seekers had no legal status or rights in their new countries and were not provided with official documents or government approvals.

Dessalegne said nothing prevents Israel from sending asylum seekers to another country if the migrants agree after being fully informed, and if the process complies with the obligation to ensure rights in the country taking them in. The question is if it’s really voluntary, and if the asylum seekers are being deprived of basic survival needs.

Dessalegne referred to the law requiring Israeli employers to deposit 20 percent of asylum seekers’ salaries into an account – money that is only returned when they leave the country. When the authorities take a significant chunk of your earnings and only return it at the airport, and when you have to renew your visa every two months, you get fed up and your departure isn’t voluntary, Dessalegne said.

He is also concerned about the treatment of asylum seekers around the world. Globally, last year saw a net increase of 2.9 million people forced to flee their homes due to war, violence or other persecution, bringing the total figure above 68 million.

Such a huge number also sharpens the rhetoric against refugees around the world, Dessalegne said, adding that the tone was poisonous in several European countries regarding asylum seekers and immigration. Populist politicians are drawing support by opposing immigration and sowing fear, a ploy based on few facts, lots of exaggeration and to some extent also seen in Israel, Dessalegne added.

One country that continues to provide asylum seekers with official status and support is Canada, where thousands of the migrants living in Israel have gone in recent years. Dessalegne, who has Canadian citizenship after moving there as a refugee at age 18, said Israel could learn a lot from asylum seekers’ integration into Canada.

The combination of multiculturalism and inclusion “only enriches society,” he said. “It doesn’t take away what you already have. It adds to it.”

As Dessalegne put it, “I’m Canadian, so I know what it means, and I’m one of the beneficiaries of Canada’s multiculturalism policy. But I felt from Day One that I was part of it, that I was included. And then I was determined to pay it back, because inclusion does not come for free. If you are in it, then you also have to pay for it.”

According to Dessalegne, “There is this notion that multiculturalism endangers what you have.” It does not, he said. It’s enriching, but it needs to be made to work, through government policy and public statements.