UN Committee Summons Israel to Explain Sweeping Asylum Rejections

'This social experiment must stop immediately,' refugee rights activist says

Eritrean migrants demonstrating outside the Knesset against the Israeli government's policy to forcibly deport African asylum seekers to Uganda and Rwanda, January 17, 2018. The Hebrew signs read, "No for deportation, Rwanda equal to death" and "Slaves for sale."
Oded Balilty /AP

A United Nations committee is demanding that Israel provide explanations regarding its policy toward asylum seekers, Haaretz has learned.

Israeli government representatives will be asked to supply clarifications to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights next week in Geneva, after which it will likely issue recommendations and demand regular updates.

Israel will have to respond as to whether its asylum policies and practice follow the Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which Israel is a signatory.

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Israel will be asked to explain its policy of “temporary non-expulsion” with regard to asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan, as well as why so few of their requests for asylum – only 13 – have been approved.

The state will have to make representations on how it will deal with more than 15,000 requests for asylum by natives of Eritrea and Sudan still to be processed, and what has been done to streamline the process after it was criticized in a May 2018 state comptroller's report.

The panel will also address drastic economic measures imposed on asylum seekers, such as the deposit law, or its policy to deny asylum seekers access to basic social and health services.

Under the 2017 law, 20 percent of a worker's salary is seized and returned only upon volutary departure, or refugee status being granted. 

In a response sent to the UN last month, Israel said it was coping with a particularly large number of asylum applications, given its size. According to data presented by Israel, 90,000 applications have been submitted since 2009. Within a year and a half, some 800 asylum seekers from Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and the Nile region were granted temporary residency on humanitarian grounds.

This status grants social benefits, health insurance and the right to work. The state, however, did not reveal it had granted status to these asylum seekers without examining requests individually, and the issue was subject to legal challenges by human rights organizations.

Israelis clash with asylum-seekers during a protest in south Tel Aviv, August 28, 2017.
Moti Milrod

“Eritreans and Sudanese people have only a small to nonexistent chance of getting refugee status in Israel,” wrote human rights groups Assaf and Physicians for Human Rights, in an alternative report commissioned by the UN.

In October 2018, Israel announced it would stop giving humanitarian status to Darfurians, and would expedite their individual requests.

But before granting anyone refugee status, it changed course and announced that, because the situation in Sudan had changed, it would stop examining asylum requests from nationals of this country altogether. Some 3,400 asylum requests from Darfurians are awaiting examination.

Similarly, in July, the Interior Ministry said it would use new critieria to examine asylum requests from Eritreans. Under these criteria, seeking asylum on grounds of fleeing the Eritrean military would have to show a clear ideological dimension.

“The evaluation criteria set by Israel are stricter than those used by the UN High Commission for Refugees,” the human rights groups said in their response. “The deficient and improper handling of asylum requests from Eritrean and Sudanese migrants leaves them in their current ‘temporary’ status, deprived of basic rights, indefinitely.”

The UN committee also sought clarifications on the policy of sending Eritrean and Sudanese migrants to other countries in Africa, looking specifically at agreements to secure their rights and safety in the third country.

Members of the South Tel Aviv Liberation Front burn an Eritrean flag, held by leader Sheffi Paz during a demonstration, Tel Aviv, August 30, 2018
David Bachar

The state responded that Israel had reached agreements with two African countries for the safe passage of Eritrean and Sudanese immigrants who had entered Israel illegally via the Egyptian border. It also said that for a variety of reasons, the arrangements were not fully implemented.

“Agreements with Rwanda and Uganda remain confidential and are not exposed to public scrutiny," human rights groups responded. Asylum seekers who left Israel "received no guarantees they would not be returned to their countries of origin," or would be able to apply for refugee status. Between 2014 and 2018, 4,469 Eritreans and Sudanese left Israel for countries other than their countries of origin, the report said. No figures are available yet for 2019.

According to a 2018 government report, asylum seekers who cannot be deported must be granted social services in cases of domestic violence, disability or homelessness. But “the recommendations of the committee were never published and are not being implemented in the field,” the counter-report says. There are no preventive, community or rehabilitation services offered to asylum seekers, and “adult asylum seekers are excluded from the public health system, except in emergency or life-threatening situations.”

“Israel allows asylum seekers to live in its territory, but without giving them the basic conditions to live with dignity," Zoe Gutzeit, director of the open clinic for migrants and refugees run by Physicians for Human Rights, said. "While Israel reports to another committee that sits and examines and makes declarations, asylum seekers sick with cancer are begging for treatment, pregnant women don’t get checked and the chronically ill must wait until their situation becomes critical to get treated."

"This social experiment with human beings must stop immediately.”