Israel continues to overwhelmingly reject or ignore asylum requests submitted by Eritrean and Sudanese nationals, among others, with some asylum-seekers still waiting for an answer after six years or more.
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Almost none of the applicants are granted refugee status. Over the past year and a half, only two requests for asylum have been approved, while almost 15,000 requests are waiting for an answer, despite criticism from the High Court of Justice and the Attorney General’s Office regarding the pace of the examination of these requests.
The data released in response to a Freedom of Information Law request by Haaretz and Amnesty International show that there has been no real change in either the pace or the method of examining these requests since Arye Dery became interior minister at the beginning of the year.
In March Dery named two attorneys – Zion Amir and Avi Himi, both leading criminal lawyers – to head the minister’s advisory committee on refugees in a move to reduce the caseload, after the committee had been without a chairman for eight months.
But as of July 6, 14,644 asylum requests were still awaiting an answer, 43 percent of them filed by Eritreans and Sudanese. What’s more, the pace of requests has increased. In 2015 there were 7,534 requests submitted for asylum, while during the first half of this year there have already been 6,970 requests. Yet in the four months since Amir and Himi were appointed to the advisory committee, not a single request was approved and 1,090 requests were rejected.
Even that number is misleading, because few of these requests were rejected after a thorough investigation of the applicants’ claims; they were automatically rejected because they were submitted many years after the applicant entered Israel. Several asylum-seekers whose applications were rejected say they had not known that they had to submit forms to make an asylum request, and only discovered this after they were sent to the Holot detention facility and learned of this from other detainees.
That’s what happened to one Eritrean asylum seeker who entered Israel seven years ago. He had fled Eritrea after daring to ask his army superiors why there was no democracy in his country. He was beaten by his commander and lost sight in one eye. When he filed a complaint against the commander, he was tortured and imprisoned.
He filed an asylum request from Holot a few months ago. Two months later, he was summoned to an interview at the RSD unit that lasted 10 minutes. He said the clerks listened to his story, “But the answer was automatic. They asked me to wait outside for a few minutes and then gave me a rejection letter.” He remains in Holot for now.
The only asylum request that was approved this year was that of Mutasim Ali, a native of Darfur in Sudan and a leader of the asylum-seeker community. Although he has been held up as an example of how someone who really deserves refugee status will get it, his request was approved four years after he’d submitted it and after a lengthy legal and public campaign. What’s more, the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Administration noted that he was not strictly recognized as a refugee but was given “special status” under the UN’s Refugee Convention.
The government’s prevailing view is that most of those it calls “infiltrators” are not fleeing persecution but are work migrants seeking to better themselves economically. Since the Interior Ministry became the address for asylum requests in 2009, a total of 11,861 Eritreans and Sudanese have filed requests, but only seven have been approved, a ratio of only 0.06 percent. In other western countries the ratio of requests approved is much higher; according to the UN High Commission on Refugees, some 65 percent of Etritrean asylum seekers and 54 percent of the Sudanese were recognized as refugees in 2014.
“The state refuses to deal with the asylum requests of Eritreans and Sudanese, it only knows how to ignore them or reject them,” says Chen Brill-Egri, who heads the campaign for refugees and asylum seekers for Amnesty International Israel. “This year we are marking a decade of a distorted and offensive asylum policy. The whole world is coping with huge waves of asylum seekers and refugees and it’s simply embarrassing that the State of Israel is refusing to provide asylum to a mere 40,000 people.”
While Israel does not expel Eritrean or Sudanese nationals because international law forbids returning victims of persecution to the country that persecuted them, it exerts heavy pressure on them to return “of their own free will” or to leave for Rwanda or Uganda. According to the population authority, more than 14,000 Africans have left Israel under the “free will” procedure since early 2013. Many of them left after being detained in Holot or being ordered there.
The state also offers an incentive – a grant of $3,500 to any Eritrean or Sudanese who leaves Israel and promises not to return. “The population authority runs the RDS unit and the ‘free will’ migration unit,” says Brill-Egri. “In practice only one of them is working.”
In March, Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber criticized the state for its foot-dragging in processing asylum requests. “As the entity promoting a policy that rests solely on distinguishing between refugees and work migrants, it ought to be in its supreme interest to finish processing the asylum requests and prove its claim once and for all – are most of these people really work migrants or people who meet the legal parameters of the convention on refugees?”
The Population, Immigration and Border Authority gave this reason for this year’s increase in asylum requests: “Recently, given the visa exemptions that have been granted to various countries, we are seeing those who are exploiting this to enter Israel as a tourist and then submit an asylum request,” it said.
“In any case, the quantity of requests cannot be measured against the number of approvals because each request and its unique circumstances are examined individually in accordance with the international convention on refugees. As we’ve seen, whoever is found eligible for refugee status is granted it.”