According to the Population and Immigration Authority, a person who refused an order to shoot at civilians in his home country isn’t entitled to refugee status because he committed a “disciplinary offense.” A person who was interned at a reeducation camp because his family opposed the regime isn’t categorized as persecuted because the camp “took care of his needs.” And anyone who has uttered a word in English after saying he doesn’t speak the language is considered unreliable.
A new report by the group Hotline for Refugees and Migrants describes all the excuses Israel uses in rejecting asylum requests.
An introductory note to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention defines a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”
Hotline's report, meanwhile, documents cases in which the population authority’s rejection of asylum requests reflects a very narrow view of what persecution or "a well-founded fear of being persecuted" are. Contradictions in marginal details and memory lapses are often interpreted as a lack of credibility during the interviews that last hours.
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D., an asylum seeker from Eritrea, said in his interview that he was pressed into his country’s military, was deployed on the border and ordered to shoot at any civilian who tried to cross. D. refused this illegal order and even said so publicly at a meeting with other soldiers. He was threatened with punishment and therefore secretly left the country.
After his escape his mother was arrested and held for four months in prison, a common occurrence in Eritrea. On his way to Israel, D. was held in Sinai, Egypt, in a camp known for torture. He has had trouble sleeping since.
Israel rejected his asylum request because of “a breach in discipline for refusing the order to kill those infiltrating into Ethiopia and for saying so publicly at two meetings,” says an August 2017 opinion by the unit handling asylum requests. “The applicant took the law into his own hands and deserted after his friends recommended that he leave the country or face possible incarceration.”
In other words, the authority defines his refusal to kill civilians as a disciplinary violation.
The report adds that “the petitioner said that if he returned to his country he would be put in a prison underground for what he said at the meetings.” According to Hotline, the authority found that the applicant had not been persecuted politically and did not meet the convention’s definition of a refugee.
The population authority responded that “we have no intention to respond and comment on each and every case, but we shall clarify that asylum requests are examined in accordance with the terms of the international refugee convention. Every request is examined with due seriousness and a weighing of its particular circumstances before any recommendation is issued.”
Hotline’s report says that “a conscientious objection to carry out an order to kill civilians (even if they are ‘infiltrators’) and a protest against such killings are clear political acts.” It notes that, according to the UN refugee agency, opposition to military service in which a person is required to carry out orders that violate basic human conduct is a political view, and punishment for such refusal is persecution.
Myanmar as well
A. is a member of Myanmar’s Kachin minority. He and his family were persecuted by the Burmese authorities. His father died in prison, his mother spent four years in prison and he was jailed in a reeducation camp.
With the help of attorney Yadin Elam, he said in his asylum-request interview that “if someone had the tiniest problem he was punished by receiving no food. I didn’t receive any food and was beaten with a stick, and they put cigarette butts out on my body. The scar above my right eye is the result of being beaten with a stick, and the one on my left arm is the result of cigarette burns.”
When asked whether he slept or ate there, he replied “yes, but not every day. We ate when we were fed.”
According to an opinion rejecting his request, “his incarceration at the reeducation camp, while occasionally marked by physical and verbal abuse, was accompanied by a broad educational program that took care of all his needs and food. And the instances of violence per his claims occurred only when he refused to carry out chores .… Thus it appears that since the applicant’s needs were met by the institution, such as food and education, there was no extraordinary torture by the authorities in his country.”
Blutus Iyasu is a leader of a group in Israel opposing the Eritrean regime, Eritreans United for Justice. But the population authority saw nothing about his political activity against the regime to recognize him as a refugee. In Eritrea, Iyasu was arrested and tortured for his political activities. In Israel, he often gives interviews to the international media, calling the Eritrean regime a murderous dictatorship.
His asylum request was rejected on standard grounds that desertion from the Eritrean army is not grounds for asylum and that his “participation in political activities is not a basis for asylum.”
The decision came despite a special UN report on the human rights situation in Eritrea that documented cases in which politically active exiled Eritreans were arrested and tortured upon their return. A clinic for refugee rights at Tel Aviv University appealed the decision, writing that it was a mistake that “pointed to a lack of basic knowledge of the refugee convention.”
Iyasu intends to continue expressing his views despite the risk of being deported back home. “I escaped because of the dictatorship,” he told Haaretz. “I’m one of our community’s leaders against the regime, and I seek to turn Eritrea into a democracy.”
He believes his comments against the regime are known in Eritrea. “They draw up blacklists, and I was told I was on them,” he said. “I saw friends put in jail only for trying to leave, so I don’t want to think about what they would do to someone who left and gives interviews against them all over the world.”
Meanwhile, an Ethiopian had his asylum request rejected; he said he was persecuted as a political activist and for his criticism of the way elections are held in his country. According to the decision on his case, the persecution he fears is for his criticism of the government.
R., a Nigerian, said he took part in an anti-corruption movement, gathered evidence against the president and led a campaign calling for an investigation. His brother and three friends in the organization were killed.
He provided a membership card for the group and a newspaper article in which he was photographed at a protest against the president. The unit for asylum seekers wasn’t impressed. In its view, a web search should have come up with more references to his activities, thus his descriptions of extensive political activity weren't reasonable.
His siblings have asylum elsewhere
Iyasu is the only member of his large family in Israel. One of his brothers died in the war in Eritrea, three others are in Germany, two are in the Netherlands and one is in Switzerland. All but him have refugee status.
“I’m the oldest one and I’m in Israel longer than they’ve been in Europe, but here it’s tough to get status,” he said.
In fact, Israel is known for its low rate of recognizing refugees compared to other countries. According to the report, since 2009, Israel has recognized 52 refugees (12 of them Eritrean and Sudanese citizens), or 0.48 percent of asylum requests.
This number in almost all OECD countries is much higher than in Israel, which is on par with Hungary and Poland. Hungary approves 0.28 percent of requests, Poland 0.86 percent, Austria 54.17 percent, Canada, 62.17 percent, Belgium 40.55 percent, the Netherlands 53.25 percent and Mexico 43.85 percent.
Tal Steiner, the head of Hotline’s legal department, said the report shows how an “entire administrative and legal machine” works to reject asylum requests. “This flagrantly makes a mockery of human lives, because behind every wrongful rejection is a person who might be being deported to his death.”
The report says “the Interior Ministry’s methods for determining facts and assessing credibility are faulty because they have been formulated with the aim of undermining asylum seekers.”
In another example, an asylum seeker from Nigeria was found to lack credibility because in his interview he did not mention English among the languages he spoke but used the word “sorry” several times and even used the word “post” when asked for his zip code.
The interviewers admitted they did not ask him why he used English words in the interview, but still, they said, “it raises a question as to the person’s credibility regarding language.”
An Ethiopian woman described how in her interview she told how her husband deserted the military with his rifle and illegally left the country. She said the Ethiopian army persecuted her for this. This was cited when she was rejected in Israel: “While in her asylum document the applicant declared she received warnings from the federal police in Ethiopia and had to move as a result, in the interview she declared that she had lived her entire life in Addis Ababa. This is a contradiction that works against her.”
Hotline says that “it is easy to see that the woman did not claim that she had left Addis Ababa, she only said that she had to move to another residence.” She may have moved to another apartment in the same city but “the interviewers did not even think to ask the simple question of from where to where she had moved.”
The unit found another contradiction in her account. In the interview she described a case in which three soldiers took her by force in their vehicle to a place she didn’t know, where one of them raped her. The unit ruled that there was a contradiction in her remarks because in her asylum request she said she had not been arrested.
The report criticizes this: “One can only wonder why the unit for handling asylum seekers does not regard it as credible that a woman is captured by three soldiers and brought to a strange house that isn’t a police station or any other government installation and does not describe the incident as an arrest.”
Hotline recommends a system that goes beyond focusing on which applicants are not entitled to refugee status.
“The basic goal of an asylum system is to recognize refugees so as to grant them the protection they deserve; it is not simply to recognize those who are not refugees with the aim of advancing the process of deportation,” the group says.