The director general of the Population and Immigration Authority, Shlomo Mor-Yosef, made a sensational statement last week: As a result of the ruling of a Jerusalem appeals court in February, the attorney general instructed the government to reexamine the policy whereby asylum seekers from Eritrea who deserted the army there are not officially recognized as refugees.
What’s so sensational? For years government policy toward Eritrean asylum seekers has been based on the denial of their right to international protection, and on abusing them in order to force them to leave. Why doesn’t Israel deport them, although it claims that they are work migrants? Because Eritrea is a terrible dictatorship, and the proportion of citizens from there who are recognized as refugees is among the highest in the world.
Israel is also aware of the fact that Eritrean asylum seekers are in danger, but as opposed to other countries, it is unwilling to recognize them as refugees. These Eritrean citizens are in limbo: On the one hand, it is forbidden to deport them, but on the other they aren’t given anything. Although deportation is not allowed, they are allowed to leave the country by themselves, of their own free will. And because they don’t have sufficient will to do so, we help them to want to leave.
Mor-Yosef announced that there would be a change: “On the instructions of the attorney general we are rethinking the criteria,” he said. His declaration is being received with mixed feelings – joy mixed with anger and concern.
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Joy, because after 12 years of denying Eritrean asylum seekers refugee status, finally the authorities – who told us that these individuals are migrants looking for work, who came here solely to improve their economic situation – are beginning to admit that they may indeed be refugees.
Anger, because in order to get to this point in time, Eritrean asylum seekers were abused for years with the intention of making their lives miserable here and causing them to leave. The authorities imprisoned them in Saharonim and Holot. They forbade them to work legally; they gave them no assistance and they stole a significant part of their wages; and they threatened to deport them to a third country and never stopped inciting against them and referring to them by the disparaging epithet “infiltrators.” Many Eritreans gave up and left Israel, continuing along the refugee route. Some paid for that with their lives.
Concern, because in order to reexamine their policy, officials have stopped handling requests for asylum, and there is a fear that this is a tactic designed to play for time and a way to gradually stop taking care of the asylum seekers, as has been true of Sudanese citizens who seek refugee status. After all, the authorities know that the time is coming when not only the Justice Ministry appeals court, but other instances will rule that these are refugees. There is nothing that buys more time in the court system, and puts off decisions, than empty declarations that a policy is being reexamined.
Mor-Yosef hastened to provide proof of the fact that this is not a magnanimous decision: “Not everyone who was in the [Eritrean] army justifies the granting of refugee status, but we are formulating different classifications of the situations: Some people fled before being drafted and some were tortured, and there’s a difference.”
There can be no greater mistake when it comes to understanding the purpose of refugee statutes. If someone has a well-founded fear of being persecuted, or of losing his freedom, or of having his human rights seriously undermined – these laws encourage him to flee, because he is entitled to protection. They don’t demand that a person be a victim of serious attacks, but rather try to protect him before that happens. Recognizing someone as a refugee is not a reward for hurting his rights: It is meant first and foremost to ensure that he won’t be harmed.
If we’re already changing course, we should behave according to the letter of the law and with decency. We must not forget: The State of Israel, which was a partner to the formulation of the Refugee Convention and its adoption by the countries of the world, can and must deal with the asylum seekers itself.
Oded Feller, an attorney, is director of the legal department of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.