Israel Must Find a Solution for Asylum Seekers

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African asylum seekers at the Holot detention facility in the Negev.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Two years ago, a baby Eritrean girl, Kako Yamena, was stabbed in the head by an Israeli attacker in Tel Aviv and seriously injured. A European country last week granted asylum to Kako and her family, after Israel refused to do so. This is a shameful and difficult moment for Israel, and requires much soul-searching about the state’s attitude toward asylum seekers.

The bill proposed by Zionist Union to rehabilitate the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv and to geographically disperse asylum seekers throughout the country is worthy of real consideration, and is an opportunity for the government to reconsider its position. Israel’s attitude to asylum seekers should not lead to a confrontation between the right and left, but should be discussed as a separate issue from other disputes between the camps.

In addition to proposing the geographical dispersal of asylum seekers within Israel, the Zionist Union bill also calls for them to be granted work and residence permits for a year, and to provide incentives for local authorities and workplaces outside of Tel Aviv that agree to take them in. At the same time, the bill – which was rejected this week by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation – calls for the allocation of funds for the development of south Tel Aviv neighborhoods, which suffered from government neglect long before the first asylum seekers moved in.

The barrier that was erected along the Israel-Egypt border in 2012 has almost completely halted the flow of asylum seekers into the country. There are now an estimated 41,000 asylum seekers living here who hail from Eritrea and Sudan. It is impossible to return them to their countries of origin because of the prevailing situations, which would put their lives and liberty at risk.

The current government, like the two that preceded it, acts as if it can resolve the problem by implementing antidemocratic laws, key to which is incarcerating people without trial and pressuring them to choose “voluntary deportation” from Israel. The situation of south Tel Aviv’s residents has not improved as a result of these steps. Anyway, the detention facilities can only hold about 10 percent of the country’s asylum seekers, and such facilities constitute a breach of the human rights and international conventions to which Israel is a partner.

Currently, there are 77,000 legal foreign workers in Israel (in addition to 16,000 illegal workers and 91,000 tourists whose visas have expired). This data shows just how irregular and persecutory the enforcement is for African asylum seekers in relation to groups staying in Israel illegally (which asylum seekers are not). It also shows that some of the foreign workers now being brought to Israel could be replaced by the asylum seekers already here.

The government, and especially the new interior minister, should study the bill seriously and in good faith, without considerations of the coalition and opposition. It is an opportunity to try a new approach for people Israel is not allowed to send back to their home countries.

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