Parliamentary Report Refutes Right-wing Lawmaker's Claims About Refugees in Israel

Likud MK who commissioned study hoped to prove European countries deport Eritrean asylum seekers en masse. Instead, it showed they approve vast majority of requests, compared with Israel's 0.1 percent

Lee Yaron
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File photo: Eritrean asylum seekers protest against a plan to forcibly deport them, in front of the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya, Israel, January 22, 2018.
File photo: Eritrean asylum seekers protest against a plan to forcibly deport them, in front of the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya, Israel, January 22, 2018.Credit: Meged Gozani
Lee Yaron

A study by the Knesset’s research center has found that Denmark and Switzerland grant most Eritrean asylum requests, confounding the hopes of the Knesset member who commissioned the report.

The study was commissioned by Likud lawmaker Anat Berko, who favors deporting Eritrean asylum seekers and hoped the study would show that European countries do so as well.

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Instead, the study found that Switzerland approved 72.5 to 84.9 percent of Eritrean asylum requests between 2013 and 2017, while in Denmark, the approval rates for those years were 86.4 to 97.4 percent. In 2016 and 2017, Switzerland rejected just 9.1 and 15.7 percent of Eritrean asylum requests. In contrast, Israel has approved less than 0.1 percent of Eritrean asylum requests.

Moreover, even Eritreans whose asylum requests are denied can usually continue living in Switzerland and Denmark without fearing arrest or deportation. They even receive basic health care and welfare.

Denmark’s Immigration Ministry told the Knesset research center that the reason most Eritrean asylum requests are granted is the country’s mandatory national service (military or civilian), which is effectively of unlimited duration. And Eritreans who don’t qualify as refugees can still receive protection for other reasons – for instance, if they left the country illegally and are at risk of being punished upon their return.

In Switzerland, too, people who don’t get refugee status can often get protection for other reasons; only people who qualify for neither status can be deported. As in Denmark, asylum is generally granted to anyone who left Eritrea to evade national service or deserted during their national service. Refugee status is also given to people who publicly criticized the Eritrean government and fear retribution.

The Swiss Federal Migration Office told the center that 35 to 55 percent of Eritreans receive refugee status and around another 25 percent receive non-refugee protection. The applicants who receive neither – comprising 20 to 25 percent of the total – fall into several categories: people whose asylum requests should properly be handled by another European country, people who turn out not to be Eritrean citizens, or people who don’t meet any of the criteria for refugee status in the preceding paragraph.

One fact the Knesset study didn’t mention is that even Eritreans denied any status can’t actually be deported. Last July, the Swiss Embassy in Israel said the country considers forcibly deporting Eritreans to be prohibited, unreasonable and unfeasible, even if doing so would be legally justified.

Sigal Rozen, public policy director at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, said she regretted that the report “didn’t clearly state the fact that even Eritreans whose asylum requests are denied in Switzerland and Denmark aren’t jailed or deported from those countries.” She also said the asylum data cited in the report “confirms what every sentient person already knew: The vast majority of Eritreans who fled their homeland are entitled to refugee status under the UN Refugee Convention and can’t be deported.”

In Israel, only around 10 of the approximately 26,000 Eritrean asylum seekers have received asylum. In 2013, the Interior Ministry stopped accepting desertion from the Eritrean army as grounds for asylum on its own, ruling that there must be “something more” as well.

In various court hearings, the ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority has argued that “the trend regarding Eritrean asylum seekers is changing in various countries,” and that this justifies rejecting Eritrean asylum applications. One of the countries it has cited in this regard is Switzerland.

The population authority has repeatedly cited a report by an official delegation from Switzerland’s Federal Migration Office, which stated that deserters, draft-dodgers and other people who left Eritrea illegally had returned to the country without suffering any punishment after resolving their legal problems by paying a fine equal to 2 percent of their income. The authority has also cited a ruling by a Swiss federal court in 2017 which stated that many people who left Eritrea illegally can return with relatively few problems.

File photo: Likud MK Anat Berko speaks to members of the press during a party convention in Tel Aviv, August 9, 2017.
File photo: Likud MK Anat Berko speaks to members of the press during a party convention in Tel Aviv, August 9, 2017.Credit: Ilan Assayag

The Knesset study also acknowledged the Swiss reports and rulings, noting that “Swiss assessments identify a certain softening of Eritrea’s policy toward citizens who seek to return to the country.” Nevertheless, it added, “When you examine the actual decisions Switzerland has made about asylum seekers, you see that the vast majority of asylum seekers still receive some kind of recognition – either refugee status or complementary protection of another type.”

Israel’s policy toward Eritreans is also expected to change in the near future. In February 2018, an appellate custody tribunal in Jerusalem overturned the existing policy by ruling that desertion from the Eritrean army could be grounds for refugee status all by itself in certain cases. As a result, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit ordered the population authority in January to revise its criteria for asylum requests based on desertion, and he recently froze consideration of Eritrean asylum requests until the new rules are drafted.

An authority task force is now working on the new guidelines, which will define what constitutes the “something more” that would turn desertion into grounds for asylum.

Berko, who commissioned the Knesset study, wrote on her Facebook page last July, “Eritreans go home! The Swiss are also seeking solutions in this direction, following a ruling which said there’s no fear of deporting infiltrators back to Eritrea. … With every passing day, the problem gets worse. I’ve raised this issue with the prime minister and I plan to continue working to immediately send the Eritrean infiltrators back to their own country!”

Asked to comment on the study on Sunday, Berko said, “It’s true the Knesset’s document says otherwise. … Nevertheless, processes to remove group protections from Eritreans in Switzerland have begun. I sent the National Security Council material on this issue from the Swiss ambassador in Vienna, which was sent to me as head of the delegation to the OSCE through Foreign Ministry channels.

“Moreover, the peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea changes this situation completely, and Europe is constantly seeking solutions,” she added. “Israel isn’t a country that absorbs deserters, and the peace agreement there requires a different attitude toward the situation.”