When Israel became one of the last democratic countries to launch a system to deal with asylum claims, in 2009, the international refugee expert who oversaw the initiative could not have predicted that his high hopes would turn slowly into disappointment.
Joel Moss, a former Canadian asylum judge who relocated permanently to Jerusalem four years ago to head the local Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society office, looked grim as he reflected on his work here.
Moss was hired to oversee HIAS’s contract to train Israeli government officials in refugee law and in judging asylum claims. He recounts how he was looking forward to using his expertise to help Israel fulfill its legal obligations, as party to many international conventions that deal with such claims. As an Orthodox Jew, he was also thrilled to help the state meet the moral obligations of Jewish law “to help the stranger,” he said.
But looking back on the Israeli system he helped launch three years ago, Moss says that he is now “saddened for the asylum seekers, and saddened and embarrassed for Israel.”
“We − HIAS, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security − trained Israeli officers to the highest international standards,” he said. “But the system is basically carved out to reject claims. The state is doing just about everything it can to not implement the spirit of the Geneva Convention. Instead of judging claims effectively, it is deterring refugees from coming or staying here.”
Though Israel signed the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention, which was created in the wake of the Holocaust, as well as its 1967 Protocols, which should ensure refugees “fair and humane asylum proceedings,” the rate of asylum seekers receiving refugee status in Israel is the lowest in the world, Moss said.
Since the 2009 launch of Israel’s Refugee Status Determination unit, 8,000 of 65,000-plus cases have been heard. Of those, 16 people have been granted asylum, according to the Ministry of the Interior. According to the UNHCR, the MOI figures are misleading. After Israel took over the responsibility of judging claims from the UNHCR three years ago, Israeli RSD officers made only two positive recommendations for asylum status, one of which was granted, said William Tall, the UNHCR envoy in Israel. "The rest were case assessed and recommended by us [before the handover]."
In contrast to Israel’s acceptance rate of .02 percent, Canada and the United States accept 40-50 percent of asylum claims each year.
Interior Ministry spokesperson said that the Israeli office that determines refugee status operates within the guidelines and criteria of UN conventions. But Moss charges that in Israel, thousands of eligible claims are not being heard or are being pushed aside on technicalities. “I can no longer keep silent,” he said.
He cites as an example the case of an African mother who left her 3- and 5-year-old daughters with a relative in a third country, in order to seek asylum in Israel. In the four years since, her case has not been heard, she has not been given a work permit and she has not been permitted to bring the girls here.
Going back to get the girls, says Moss, could mean her arrest or death. “The older daughter [now age 9] is so traumatized from the separation that she is self-mutilating and making herself vomit,” he said. He also notes that a proposed Israeli bill seeks to make it illegal for refugees to send money to their families.
While he comes across as stoic, after much probing, Moss admits that he often finds himself holding back tears when he hears the stories of rape, abuse and loss that so many migrants have suffered. He couldn’t help but think of the refugees and asylum seekers, and their stories, when saying the pre-Yom Kippur repentance prayers last week, especially during the “we have sinned” confessionals.
A fateful job description
Until 2009, Israel had no written refugee policy, relevant case law, or legal aid for migrants, and only a scarce few state employees were trained in international refugee law. Since its immigration policy only referred to Jews under the Law of Return, the trickle of non-Jewish asylum seekers was processed by the UNHCR, with assistance from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. But as the political situation in many countries worsened, and migration patterns shifted, Israel found itself flooded with 18,000 migrants by 2008. When the government decided to take over the responsibility of handling refugee claims, it turned to the UNHCR and HIAS for advice.
A Canadian refugee judge heard that the two refugee organizations were seeking a candidate to oversee training in Israel, and passed the word onto Moss, who was living in Montreal. His heart raced when he read the job description − which, he said, sounded like “destiny” to a refugee expert and Orthodox Jew committed to Israel.
Under Moss’s leadership, HIAS, the UNHCR and some U.S. Department of Homeland Security employees worked to bring Israel up to the standards of asylum practices in other democratic countries, based on the Geneva Convention. HIAS has so far invested more than $200,000 in training. According to the JDC, it invested NIS 25,000, while the State of Israel has contributed NIS 75,000 and the European Union 52,000 euros (NIS 262,600). The UNHCR has also invested many hundreds of staff hours in the process.
The training curriculum does not only include a review of international refugee law. Trainers also teach active listening skills, how to read body language and how to check whether someone is telling the truth about identity, religion and place of residence. In addition, they train workers to understand behaviors associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. These tools help determine if a candidate qualifies under international law as having a well-founded fear of persecution for political, religious, racial, national or social-group affiliation reasons.
The initial training sessions proceeded without interference or censorship from the state, and in July 2009, the Israeli Refugee Status Determination unit opened, with some 30 staff members.
The vast majority of democratic countries developed independent judicial asylum-claim systems in the 1980s and 90s. Israel’s new system turned out to be distinct in a few ways. First, it decided not to review cases of citizens from war-stricken countries, like Sudan and Eritrea. Instead it gave these migrants “temporary group protection,” allowing them to stay − without work permits − until it is safe for them to return to their native countries.
Also, although asylum-claims officers in Israel are now the most senior experts in the country, they are without authority to make decisions as part of an independent tribunal, as their peers in countries such as Canada and the United States are authorized to do. Instead, officers can merely pass recommendations to a government committee, which then passes its recommendations to the interior minister.
When Eli Yishai took that post in 2009, his job description included being the senior judge in Israel to decide if a refugee can receive asylum status . Yet, at the same time, he began referring to asylum-seekers as “infiltrators” and “job seekers,” as well as a threat to security, political, economic, health and ethnic majority concerns.
Asked if there was a contradiction in calling Sudanese and Eritrean asylum-seekers these names while being in charge of granting them temporary group protection as people at-risk of returning to persecution, the Interior Ministry spokesperson said it is a “matter of terminology,” and that “in their interviews they tell us they have come to work here.”
Refugee-aid organizations acknowledge that officials at the border ask migrants if they want to work in Israel, and migrants sometimes answer in the positive. However these questions are not handled by staff trained in determining if migrants faced persecution and risk at home, Moss said.
The real threat to Jewish values
Migrants in many countries have been portrayed as job-stealing, disease-ridden criminals who threaten the ethnic majority. Moss notes that the same descriptions were used by a Canadian immigration official about Jews after World War II, and by Israeli Jews about Jewish immigrants from Arab and European countries in 1956.
But the stereotypes are wrong, he argues. “In the United States and Canada, immigrants generally get educated and assimilate − bringing wealth and strength ... offsetting the costs of absorption.”
He also said that disease and crime rates among the migrant population here are no worse than among the general Israeli population. In Israel, migrants generally work in cleaning, hotels, kitchens or farm labor − “jobs that Israelis don’t flock to,” said Moss. “The more claims are handled efficiently, the less likely there will be issues of criminality. The crime rate is related to the procedures; even the head of the Tel Aviv police recognized that. How can [migrants] live without opportunities to support themselves?
“Asylum-seekers only represent about a quarter of foreigners in Israel,” Moss added. “If Israel worries about too many foreigners, then reduce foreign work permits, and give them to asylum-seekers.”
As for Israel’s oft-expressed fears of losing the “Jewish character” of the state, Moss responds that the way Israel treats asylum-seekers is the real threat to Jewish values. “A well-defined refugee policy with fair and quick assessment of claims would be the best way to keep numbers in check,” he said.
In 2011, HIAS realized that Israel’s new asylum system was leaving tens of thousands of asylum-seekers in limbo, without work permits or legal assistance, and that the few pro bono lawyers from NGOs dedicated to helping them were overwhelmed. It began, in coordination with the UNHCR, to train 55 lawyers in refugee law, and to work to establish wider pro bono representation for asylum-seekers.
In January 2012, after Israel amended its 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Law, which allows migrants entering Israel through unauthorized border crossings to be held for up to three years without trial , HIAS put out a statement saying that it expects Israel to detain asylum-seekers only long enough to verify their identity, unless they pose a danger or threat.
But Israel continues not to fully meet its legal obligations to determine asylum claims based on the Geneva Refugee Convention, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other agreements such as the Convention against Torture.
Still, Moss said optimistically, there is hope.
“Historically, many Western countries reacted to refugees and asylum-seekers with rejection and severity, and only changed when courts ordered them to implement a fair asylum process,” he explained. “I helped Israel to have a basis for a fair asylum system and hope to continue training Interior Ministry staff. Hopefully, the courts will ensure respect for international law and enforce a fair system, as has been the case in other countries.”
Moss’s hope now is that claims will eventually be decided by a court or tribunal, independent of government influence. “[That] has to be more equitable,” he said.
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