UN Refugee Agency Lambastes Israeli Policy on African Migrants

Find alternative to current 'warehousing' of migrants UNRA tells Israel in rare public statement.

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The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has criticized Israel’s policy on African migrants, and in particular the new amendments to the country's anti-infiltration law.

Following Sunday's mass protest of tens of thousands of migrants and their supporters in Tel Aviv, the representative for UNHCR in Israel published a rare press release, calling on Israel to consider alternatives to its current “warehousing” of migrants.

The release was titled “Israel’s new laws and policies do not live up to the Spirit of the 1951 Refugee Convention.”

UNHCR has previously criticized the amendments to the anti-infiltration law, and even brought its position before the High Court of Justice, but, until now, has refrained from making public statements. In the press release published Sunday, the agency said that in principle it supports establishing a residence facility for asylum seekers, but not in its current incarnation at Holot.

“I am particularly disquieted about the purpose of the so-called 'open' residence facility in Holot which, in its current form and despite its designation as 'open,' would appear to operate as a detention center from where there is no release," UNHCR representative Walpurga Englbrecht said. "This means in effect indefinite detention.”

The statement also said that international laws calls to detain asylum seekers only as a last resort and only for the shortest possible duration.

"The current policy and practices create fear and chaos amongst asylum seekers, not taking into account their specific situation," the agency said in the statement.

In recent weeks Israel has made it harder for many migrants to renew their temporary residence permits. The policy change means that only the main offices of the Population, Immigration and Border Authority in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Be’er Sheva, Petah Tikvah, Rishon Letzion, and Eilat will process permits. The window for renewing permits has narrowed only three times a week, for two and a half hours, while the Eilat office is open for permits requests only twice a week.

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African migrants protest Israel's expulsion bill in central Tel Aviv on January 5, 2014.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
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Israel has come under fire for trying African migrants by number and not name. Credit: Daniel Bar-On
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African migrants protest Israel's expulsion bill in central Tel Aviv on January 5, 2014.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

With long lines regularly forming outside the immigration authority's offices many migrants have complained they cannot renew their permits.

Law enforcement officials have recently arrested 115 migrants for not carrying valid residency permits, sending them to detention at Givon Prison.

UNRA has recently received an influx of complains about arrests of asylum seekers who either did not know of the new procedures for renewing their permits or tried to renew them but failed.

“The current practice leads to hardship and suffering," UNHCR's statement said. "Families are split whereby the breadwinner is put in detention, and family members, including pregnant women and minor children, are left to fend for themselves. In other cases, the request for a visa renewal just leads to an extension of one month with the demand to report to Holot at the end of the one month period. There are also cases where an asylum seeker holding a B1 working visa just received a one-month conditional release visa with the request to report to Holot in one month, otherwise he would be detained. Asylum seekers report that they are afraid of going into the street for fear of being arrested or they are afraid of not being able to come home from work."

UNHCR calls on Israel to “ensure that those with protection needs have access to refugee status determination, irrespective of the location of their residence in Israel.” The agency also criticize the partial, temporary protection granted to asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea, whereas in other nations the recognition rates of refugees from Sudan and Eritrea are over 70%. “Placing asylum seekers in duress that may force asylum seekers to opt to return without having examined their asylum claim could amount to a violation of the principle of non-refoulement,” or not returning a victim of persecution to their persecutor, the statement said.

At Sunday's rally in Tel Aviv. Credit: Ofer Vaknin