Israel's Policy on Asylum Seekers Is 'Unsustainable', UN Representative Charges

'They ran away from their communities and countries because they had no choice,' the UNHCR's representative tells a crowd in Tel Aviv. 'It is therefore not right, legally and morally, to label these people as illegal migrants – or worse, as 'infiltrators'

Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
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Asylum seekers waiting in line to renew their residency permits with the Population Authority in Bnei Brak, 2018.
Asylum seekers waiting in line to renew their residency permits with the Population Authority in Bnei Brak, 2018.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

The Representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel charged on Thursday that the country's status quo regarding the asylum seekers is "unsustainable," and suggested re-tabling the UN treaty on refugees in Israel, among other solutions.

Damtew Dessalegne, who is ending his term in office after four years in Israel and has generally been reticent to criticize the Israeli government, objected to the terminology used by the state regarding asylum seekers. He was speaking at a conference held by the agency to mark Refugee Day at Bialik Rogozin School in Tel Aviv. “We must find a sustainable and humane solution to give the refugees protection according to international standards, while taking Israel’s demographic interests into consideration,” he said.

“I hope that sooner or later, Israeli authorities will acknowledge that the Sudanese and Eritrean are not the problem, but the problem is the reasons that drove them by force from their homes and communities, and the unrealistic policies taken toward them,” said Dessalegne at the conference.

He also criticized the terminology used by the state and its residents toward the African asylum seekers. “Let me repeat here what I have been saying for the past four years: There should be no illusion that the Eritreans and Darfuris who fled to the State of Israel over the years were moving voluntarily, in search of a better life. They ran away from their communities and countries because they had no choice. […] It is therefore not right, legally and morally, to label these people as ‘illegal migrants’ – or worse, as 'infiltrators' – and avoid the ‘refugee’ terminology altogether, and the rights and obligations that it implies.”

Dessalegne made his remarks at a conference celebrating the book “Going Far,” which anthologizes Eritrean girls' stories of seeking refuge in Israel. He noted that two decades ago, it seemed as if the number of refugees and displaced people was in decline, but today he sees that the opposite is true.

“Our message is simple: Europe and other countries further afield have proven their willingness and ability to receive and host generously and effectively over 4 million refugees from Ukraine. There is every reason for us to expect these nations to extend the same level of compassion to other refugees knocking, in distress, at their doors. For Israel too, the solidarity shown to Ukraine refugees is a landmark moment and an opportunity to revisit the policies that have been pursued for over a decade with respect to African asylum-seekers, and remedy their shortcomings,” Dessalegne said.

The comments come as Israel's Population Authority is working to issue new regulations on evaluating asylum requests and the government eyes amending the Deposit Law in order to seize a portion of asylum seekers' pay as an incentive to leave the country.

Giving further urgency to Dessalegne's words, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, likely who Dessalegne was referencing in his comments on the phrase "infiltrators," went against the position of the UN High Commission on Refugees last month in deciding to lift blanket protections for asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The decision was made without consulting the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

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