In the past decade, Israel has seen an influx of African asylum-seekers, primarily from Eritrea and Sudan. The issue moved to the forefront of Israeli domestic politics this spring when the right-wing administration, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, began discussing a plan to forcibly deport tens of thousands of asylum-seekers. Since then, asylum-seekers and the organizations that offer services to these populations have been in a state of limbo as they await Netanyahu’s next move. World Policy Journal spoke to Jean-Marc Liling, an attorney and executive director of the Jerusalem-based Center for International Migration and Integration, about the experience of migrants as they navigate Israel’s asylum systems.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: The past few months have been filled with uncertainty for asylum-seekers and their supporters in Israel. Could you catch us up on the situation?
JEAN-MARC LILING: Asylum-seekers have been coming in large numbers to Israel since 2007, and the Israeli government was caught completely unprepared to deal with this. The current government, which was elected in 2015, has been increasingly trying to push asylum-seekers that it doesn’t consider to be legitimate refugees to leave the country. It’s made their lives in Israel quite difficult so that they will choose to voluntarily leave. In my opinion, the government has no understanding that the countries it might be sending them to are so much more difficult than Israel would be, even under the worst circumstances.
Until the beginning of this year, the government used economic and status-related incentives to make people think that it would be difficult to live in Israel in the long term, and that they may as well seek other possibilities in third countries. The system was called “voluntary removal” to third countries in Africa—the third countries were secret, but everyone knew the countries involved were Rwanda and Uganda.
Then, in early January, Israel for the first time conceived of a plan to forcibly deport asylum-seekers. This plan would have removed 7,000 asylum-seekers per year to countries with which Israel had agreements. People assumed that the main countries included in this scheme were again Rwanda and maybe Uganda. This set off protests by civil society organizations. As the protesters saw it, for a country like Israel, which still sees itself as being built by Jewish refugees and is supposed to have an obligation to Jewish values and Jewish history, deporting people who weren’t given access to fair and transparent refugee procedures was crossing a line.
It’s not clear to what extent Israel actually took steps to implement the plan, but by early April, some of the issues had gone to the High Court of Justice. The judges were asking the Israeli government questions, especially about reports from Rwanda, which was assumed to be the main destination for deportees, of how badly the asylum-seekers who voluntarily left Israel were treated. They had not been given proper status in Rwanda and were basically sent away after the cash in their pockets had been taken from them. Rwanda said publicly that there was no agreement with Israel to take in forcibly deported asylum-seekers. Additionally, if asylum-seekers refused to get on planes to be “voluntarily” deported under this plan, they might face indefinite imprisonment, which would be a serious infringement of basic refugee rights, if they were indeed refugees. This put the whole system in question.
For months, if not years, Israel has tried to negotiate with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Because the countries to which Israel was prepared to deport its African refugee populations had questionable records of refugee treatment, the UNHCR accelerated its efforts to coordinate resettlement in the West. But at this point, the forced deportation plan had been suspended due to the involvement of the High Court of Justice, and it would remain suspended until the the Ministry of Interior came up with an answer to the questions posed by the court.
During the week of Pesach (Passover; the first week in April 2018), to the surprise of everyone, Netanyahu called for a press conference along with the Ministry of Justice and the head of the Migration Authority. He announced that the government had reached an agreement with the UNHCR whereby 16,250 asylum-seekers would be resettled in Western countries and the same number would be given status in Israel for five years, at which point the situation in their countries of origin would be reassessed to determine whether they could return. The resettlement process of the first 16,250 people would also take five years. Additional parts of the agreement were dependent on the UNHCR; there was a commitment to provide incentives for asylum-seekers to not to settle in south Tel Aviv, which now has the highest concentration of asylum-seekers in Israel. These have been disadvantaged neighborhoods for years, and the influx has created tensions with local Israelis, so there was also a plan for major investment in the rehabilitation of the neighborhoods.
For the first time, too, Netanyahu didn’t speak of “infiltrators,” which has been the term that he and the Ministry of the Interior have been using instead of “asylum-seekers.” There was a sigh of relief among civil society organizations and asylum-seekers after the press conference. But then, within just a few hours, Netanyahu suspended the plan he’d just announced. The next morning, he canceled it.
So now we’re back in limbo.
Further poverty and distress is being caused by a 2017 deposit law, which takes 20 percent of asylum-seekers’ pay, which would supposedly be returned when they leave the country. When you’re making a low wage, 20 percent is a huge tax on your basic ability to provide for yourself and your family. Among women we’re also seeing higher rates of prostitution.
On the other side of things, we’re seeing the development of community leadership. This is especially true among the Eritreans, whose representation in civil society organizations was very low but is now growing. Empowered community leadership can speak for their communities and not be dependent on Israeli NGOs. Another big change that’s now accelerating is the spread of migrant populations all over Israel. Today, only about one-third of asylum-seekers are living in south Tel Aviv. My organization, the Center for International Migration and Integration, is involved with the asylum-seekers in Israel’s peripheral regions, in cities such as Eilat, Be’er Sheva, and Jerusalem.
WPJ: Before working at the Center for International Migration and Integration, you worked at the Ministry of Justice, at the prime minister’s office, and as a senior member of the protection team at UNHCR’s Israel office. What role do these different institutions play in Israel’s immigration and asylum systems?
JML: In the early 2000s, there was a committee that was made up of representatives of the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Interior, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They were supposed to receive professional recommendations regarding asylum claims and then pass on their own recommendations to the Ministry of Interior, which is the ultimate authority that decides whether or not to grant asylum and refugee status. This committee still exists.
The UNHCR used to be responsible for refugee status determination (RSD) procedures. Around 2010, this responsibility was transferred to a unit within the Ministry of Interior. Additionally, departments across different ministries that were dealing with RSD in different capacities were all united in one migration authority, called PIBA. The migration authority hands out passports and is responsible for bringing in migrant workers legally, checking borders, enforcement of rights for foreign workers, and more. The RSD unit is a unit under PIBA.
Even with precarious status, asylum-seekers are supposed to have rights in the realm of welfare, health care, education, and employment. All asylum-seekers have a temporary, renewable visa—it’s not worth much, but it identifies them as asylum-seekers, not migrants who enter the country illegally. Therefore, they should have access to certain services and rights, at least as a way of preventing major risk situations. A lot of the work we do at CIMI on behalf of asylum-seekers in the periphery is to create the basic infrastructure to respond to their needs, by acting as an intermediary for these populations on the local municipal level.
WPJ: In June, a report released by Amnesty International stated that “the Israeli asylum system is intentionally dysfunctional and difficult, and the chances of finding protection in Israel are close to zero for almost all asylum claims.” Can you elaborate on this, based on your own experiences?
JML: It’s estimated that about 15,000 of Africans, mostly Eritreans and Sudanese, have submitted asylum claims out of the 40,000 living in Israel. I would say that the rest have not done so not because they don’t have legitimate claims, but because they’ve given up on the system entirely and don’t think they’ll get anything from applying for asylum. Also, Eritreans and Sudanese were only allowed to apply for asylum as of 2013, and most of them had arrived four or five years prior. There was no proper dissemination of the information that they could finally apply for asylum.
For those who did apply, it took about five years to review 8,000 claims. A lot of them were rejected out of hand—only half of them were actually looked at. Israel rejected Eritreans by the thousands in this way. If anyone left Eritrea after being drafted into the army or having evaded the draft, for instance, it wasn’t considered a legitimate claim, though a case a few months ago could require the Israeli government to review this policy. Countries such as Canada, Germany, and others, meanwhile, consider the forced draft a legitimate claim. People were also rejected in Israel because they were said to have applied too late; there has never been a deadline set for applying, though, so these claims are now under review.
The numbers reflect the Israeli RSD unit’s unwillingness to look at these claims in ways that are fair and transparent. I don’t think the interview process is being done properly, and I think that everything is being done to incentivize people to leave and to feel like they don’t have a chance. Recently, the State Controller—an institution that controls the functioning of all public institutions in Israel, including public companies and the army—issued a report that came out strongly against the migration authority, saying that the RSD procedure was completely inadequate.
WPJ: You said that the state tries to incentivize migrants to leave. What are some examples of disenfranchisement of asylum-seekers, aside from lack of citizenship?
JML: Their visas do not function as work permits—this also went to the High Court of Justice, which determined that as long as Israel isn’t giving these people the basic means to survive in the country, the only way they can live is to work. Therefore, although the visa is not a work permit, it’s not illegal to work while holding these visas, and people won’t be sanctioned if they do so. But generally, it’s difficult for them to find employment, and they don’t have access to the national insurance plan like every Israeli citizen or legal resident.
Another incentive to get people to leave was internment: Before it was closed in March, the Holot detention facility was a place where one might be interned for months or even years. At its height, it held 3,000 people.
There has also been agitation against this population, in many respects triggered by politicians who used and abused this issue and the suffering of Israeli residents of south Tel Aviv neighborhoods that have been completely overwhelmed by migrants. Up to 80 or 90 percent of a neighborhood in this area may be made up of foreign workers or asylum-seekers; politicians use the difficulties and the despair of south Tel Aviv to turn people against asylum-seekers. Some politicians, including the current Minister of Culture and Sport, Miri Regev, have used severe language to speak about immigrant populations—before she was became minister, Regev spoke about the Sudanese as a cancer spreading out in the national body.
WPJ: A large part of the foundation of the state of Israel is creating a safe place for the Jewish people. What implications would deporting or accepting the asylum-seekers have for the country and its national identity?
JML: Israel is still a young country––you could say it has some foundational pillars in terms of institutions and identity, but to a large extent we’re still trying to determine what it means to be a Jewish, democratic state. A lot of people, when they speak of these issues, refer only to the demographic aspects. Demography is important, especially in a small country like Israel where not all the population is Jewish—at least 20 percent are Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship. Demographics give a sense of security to certain people if we’re all more or less from the same tribe. But the question of non-Jewish migrants is considered only under the prism of demography and there’s a feeling of losing the Jewish identity. I would posit, though, that it’s still a work in progress, and that the Jewish nature of this state is also a question of values, history, and heritage. The deeper questions that have to be asked society-wide are about the welcoming of the stranger, whether he’s a migrant worker who comes for economic reasons or an asylum-seeker or refugee, and how this fits in with Jewish values from both the textual point of view and what Jewish history tells us.
The response of Israeli civil society over the past few months and the fact that the forced expulsion was halted are proof that the conversation, which wasn’t taking place in recent years, might be starting to happen. This could be the saving grace of Israeli society.
A country could decide to renounce the Refugee Convention, say that it’s no longer relevant and that it wants to protect its borders—if people knock on your door, well, too bad. Making such decisions would obviously say something about our country, but even if the Israeli government were to succeed in deporting massive numbers of refugees, based on the way the question of migration and refugees is evolving, this isn’t the last we’re seeing of them. All Western countries need to prepare for the possibility of ever-higher numbers of migrants seeking protection. I’m not saying the gates of all economically successful countries have to be open wide, but we do have to prepare ourselves and think about how we handle this and how we create solidarity not only within our societies, but also worldwide. We need mechanisms that allow people who are really in danger to seek protection in places where they would be safe. It’s going to take the work of decades, if not centuries, to reduce the incentives—the poverty, conflict, and other factors—for asylum-seekers to leave their countries in the first place.
We have a larger question to deal with, and the truth is that when we’re dealing with an issue like migration, people are not often keen to express solidarity with other countries or to cooperate to solve worldwide problems.
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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
[Interview conducted by Sussan García]
[Photo courtesy of Rudychaimg]