UN Panel Demands Answers From Israel on Failure to Protect Asylum Seekers

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Eritrean migrants a demonstration against the Israeli government's policy to forcibly deport African refugees and asylum seekers from Israel, outside the Knesset, in Jerusalem, January 17, 2018.
Eritrean migrants a demonstration against the Israeli government's policy to forcibly deport African refugees and asylum seekers from Israel, outside the Knesset, in Jerusalem, January 17, 2018. Credit: Oded Balilty/AP

Israel must explain to the United Nations why only a minuscule proportion of asylum seekers here are granted refugee status, and why they cannot get permanent work permits or regular access to health and social service, a UN committee has stated.

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights last week said it will be seeking answers when it meets with Israeli officials in April.

The committee wants Israel to explain “the measures taken to address the extremely high number of outstanding asylum applications and the minimal number of refugee statuses granted and further to improve the asylum system.” More than 15,000 asylum requests remain unchecked as of June 2019. Of the 16,149 requests from Eriteans, 5,502 were rejected and only 13 were accepted.

It also asked Israel to elaborate on its view of “the compatibility of the temporary non-return policy with the obligations of the state” under the rights covenant Israel signed, “particularly in relation to the rights to work, to social security and to an adequate standard of living.” Asylum seekers already a decade in the country fail to receive permanent work permits and have limited access to social and healthcare services, the committee said.

In addition, the committee asked for elaboration on steps Israel has taken to revise the Deposit Law, which came into force on May 17, 2019, in order to remove provisions “that oblige the employers of Eritrean and Sudanese employees to deduct a certain percentage (20 per cent or 6 per cent) of their net salary and deposit it into a special Departure Fund.”

The concern is that the asylum seekers may wind up earning less than the minimum wage, which contradicts the convention Israel signed.

Regarding Eritreans and Sudanese, the committee asked Israel for information on its policy of relocating them to Uganda and Rwanda and how Israel ensures their rights are preserved there.

Israel was also asked for information on its steps to expand healthcare services to asylum seekers and to ensure that all children can access medical care regardless of their parents’ legal status.

All asylum seekers and foreign workers should have access to preventive medical care, irrespective of their legal status, the UN committee urges. It also urges more mental health care for asylum seekers, and better schooling for their children, and supervision over that schooling.

The committee recommended that Israel eliminate or amend the deposit law to streamline determination of the status of asylum seekers; and that it expand the range and improve the quality of the social services that asylum seekers and foreign workers are entitled to receive in Israel.

The panel submitted its recommendations following Israel’s report to it about how it handled asylum seekers. In keeping with custom, a shadow report was filed by human rights organizations, including Physicians for Human Rights-Israel.

“It’s time to burst the bubble of temporary protection for asylum seekers,” said Dr. Zoe Gutzeit, director of the migrant and refugee program at PHR-I. Israel is denying basic healthcare, welfare and working rights to the asylum seekers while collectively punishing that community under the guise of temporary protection, she said – but that does not release it of its obligations. Every day they see at the clinic the ramifications of Israel’s policy: cancer patients who don’t get chemotherapy, diabetics who wind up with amputated limbs, torture victims crying for help. The hospitals are in distress as they provide care in the absence of systemic solutions, which is bad for everybody, asylum seekers and Israelis alike, Gutzeit said.

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