When Ayelet Shaked became interior minister, she used xenophobic terminology to declare she would act to return asylum seekers to their countries of origin and encourage their “voluntary return” to a third country. Like other politicians, Shaked realized there was political capital to be made on the backs of the most vulnerable people in Israeli society.
She hasn’t stopped being photographed hugging Shefi Paz, Israel’s most high-profile activist for deporting asylum seekers – someone who faces three serious indictments. Shaked has also reiterated Paz’s racist remarks and harebrained schemes for asylum seekers and Israel’s immigration policy.
Interior Ministry figures show that Israel has about 40,000 asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan, 7,000 of them children, who have been here since 2006 with no legal status and no basic social benefits.
Israel abuses the asylum seekers, flouting its commitment to the Geneva Conventions. It doesn’t consider their asylum requests or delays the process and prevents them from obtaining permanent status or recognition as refugees.
Due to the pandemic, some 80 percent of the asylum seekers have lost their jobs and their situation has deteriorated. Some of them have reached the point of hunger. They experience xenophobia every day from the state, designed to break their spirit, and their lives are fragile and fraught with stress. They live in the shadow of uncertainty and exclusion.
Israel, meanwhile, has been downgraded for the first time in a decade by the annual U.S. State Department report on countries’ efforts to fight human trafficking. The report cites Israel’s ignominious treatment of asylum seekers as one reason for the downgrade. It details the economic distress, prevalent especially among Eritrean women, that greatly increases their vulnerability to sex trafficking.
According to the report, these women have been pushed into prostitution. Before the pandemic, some 400 asylum seekers who had been trapped in prostitution were documented. In 2020 their number is believed to have tripled.
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The report also mentions the foot-dragging in identifying human-trafficking victims among asylum seekers. “Many of these migrants were kidnapped in the Sinai and subjected to severe abuse, including forced labor and sex trafficking, at the hands of criminal groups in the Sinai before reaching Israel,” the report says. “In 2020, an NGO reported that of the approximately 4,000 to 5,000 of these migrants still present in Israel, the government had only recognized approximately 400 to 500 as trafficking victims but that the actual number was much higher.”
Shaked knows that the asylum seekers can’t be deported, and under international law and conventions Israel has signed, it can’t forcibly return the migrants – the euphemism is “voluntary departure.” The agreement with the UN Refugee Agency, which then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed and revoked amid criticism from Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party and toxic incitement by Shefi Paz, is still on the table. It’s worth a reexamination.
The state must review the requests by asylum seekers with no legal status and grant refugee status to those who are eligible. The few who fled here from genocide in Sudan and the oppressive regime in Eritrea aren’t a demographic threat and pose no risk to the state’s character.
It’s time we took them in and respected their rights. No way can the fascist and populist rhetoric of a senior politician continue.