Israeli Doctors, Health Ministry at Odds Over Deportation of Asylum Seekers

Disorder at government offices prevents most Eritreans and Sudanese from submitting their asylum application

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African asylum seekers wait outside of the Interior Ministry on Salameh Street in south Tel Aviv, January 23, 2018.
African asylum seekers wait outside of the Interior Ministry on Salameh Street in south Tel Aviv, January 23, 2018.Credit: meged gozani

Doctors in Israel who have taken a stance against the deportation of African asylum seekers have now found themselves opposing not just the government but also the Health Ministry.

Last week, Physicians for Human Rights in Israel demanded that the ministry revoke the medical license of Prof. Shlomo Mor-Yosef because of his role as head of the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority, which is running the campaign to deport Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers. Their appeal said that Mor-Yosef, a physician, “is not carrying out his duties in the Population and Immigration Authority as a physician. But the very fulfillment of the role by a physician places a stain on the entire profession.”

Over 1,000 doctors signed another letter to Mor-Yosef, urging him to halt the expulsion of asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan. “Our silence is like consent to one of the harshest blows humanity has ever known,” read part of the letter. It called on the government to find a moral and humane solution that would allow asylum seekers to assert their right to health and a dignified life.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman wrote a letter in support of Mor-Yosef on Tuesday, in response to Physicians for Human Rights: “The attempt, a low one to my mind, to depict the signatories as the only ones concerned about compassion and fellow humans, compared to the government of Israel that supposedly abandons foreigners and cruelly expels them, is a baseless and mendacious.” Litzman accused the doctors of “taking a side in a matter that has nothing to do with them, self-righteously vilifying the government.” He said the doctors’ letter did not reflect the position of the Health Ministry, which supports “this policy of voluntary departure for infiltrators.”

Physicians for Human Rights responded: “The attempt to menace members of Physicians for Human Rights is another step in the trend of incitement against anyone who disagrees with government policy. When the policy of our government so crudely exceeds the core [values] of medicine, then opposition is one of the most sincere expressions we have to show our loyalty to our patients – this not only our moral obligation, it is the essence of our profession.”

On Sunday, Interior Minister Arye Dery had asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take action against state-employed doctors who have called for Mor-Yosef’s dismissal.

Dery wrote on his Twitter account Tuesday that it was a lie that asylum seekers were being deported without a hearing. “Anyone who submitted an application for asylum cannot be deported under international law without a hearing. And those who did not submit an application will not be deported without a hearing,” he tweeted.

‘Most people wait in vain’

Meanwhile, with no advance warning, the Interior Ministry on Tuesday transferred responsibility for processing asylum requests by Eritreans and Sudanese from an office in south Tel Aviv to one in Bnei Brak.

Security guards at the Population, Immigration and Border Authority office on Salameh Road refused to allow the asylum seekers to enter, instead directing them to the Bnei Brak office, where they must also go to renew their visas.

A note outside the office informed asylum seekers (in Hebrew only) that from now on, they could only submit their applications in Bnei Brak. The authority did not issue any announcement about the change, and its website still refers people who want to request asylum to the Tel Aviv office.

Human rights activists who heard about the change have tried to disseminate the information to the asylum seekers community, but nevertheless, some asylum seekers were standing outside the Salameh Road office on Tuesday.

The change was intended to reduce the crowds at the south Tel Aviv office and make it easier to submit asylum applications. But a long line formed outside the Bnei Brak office on Tuesday, and only about 40 of the 100 or so people who were waiting were allowed to enter to submit their applications. The others were told to try again another day.

Those who could come in were told to wait their turn in a large tent with rows of plastic chairs that had been set up outside the building.

One Eritrean asylum seeker said he arrived at the office at 4 A.M. but his number was called only at about noon. “You sit there for hours, simply wasting time,” he said. When his number was finally called, he added, he wasn’t allowed to submit his asylum application because he hadn’t renewed his Israeli residency visa.

For the past year, long lines have formed every day outside the Immigration Authority’s Tel Aviv office, with many people arriving in the evening and waiting all night on the sidewalk in hopes of being permitted inside. The authority’s rules state that asylum applications must be handed in at the office and cannot be submitted in any other way.

It’s not uncommon for fights to break out among the people waiting in line, or for self-proclaimed fixers to offer people to jump the line in exchange for payment. Very few people actually manage to get in on any given day, and most must try again another time.

Many asylum seekers say they have tried to submit applications numerous times, but haven’t yet succeeded. The Immigration Authority refuses to give people standing in line a number for another day, as it used to do in the past.

An appellate custody tribunal in Tel Aviv recently criticized the authority’s conduct, saying it is restricting the submission of new asylum applications. Judge Bafi Tam wrote in her ruling that she paid two visits to the south Tel Aviv office “and saw that all the problems described in a great many appeals submitted in recent months indeed occur. These include long waits in line, management of the lines by outside parties, disorder, violence and thuggishness, and in practice, most people wait in vain, since in reality, only a few people are allowed to enter, and it turns out that even some of those go in but ultimately aren’t allowed to submit their applications.”

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