Asylum Seekers in Israel

Some 55,000 asylum seekers live in Israel, primarily in South Tel Aviv. Although officially referred to by Israeli authorities and the public as “infiltrators,” the majority have fled persecution in Eritrea, Sudan and a handful of other African countries. On the way to Israel, many have been ransomed, tortured and sexually assaulted in the Sinai. Most entered Israel without authorization through its southern border with Egypt. Eritreans and Sudanese are provided “temporary group protection” from deportation, but their asylum claims are not processed and they have little social support and are not issued work permits. By spring 2012, upwards of 2,000 asylum seekers were entering Israel each month.

In response to this influx, a wave of protests and anti-African violence and rhetoric hit the country. Numerous attacks on the shops and homes of African asylum seekers took place, including the firebombing of an apartment and daycare center. During an anti-migrant rally, MK Miri Regev compared African asylum seekers to a “cancer” in Israel's body and other MKs called for their immediate detention and deportation. Israeli residents of South Tel Aviv complained they no longer felt safe walking the streets.

The government has taken a number of key measures to stem the flow of migrants into Israel through the Egyptian border. Amendments to the “Prevention of Infiltration Law” allow unauthorized entrants to be detained for at least three years. The constitutionality of the law is currently being challenged in the Supreme Court of Israel. The Court recently issued a “conditional order” instructing the State to justify the legality of this law. Another regulation allows “infiltrators” to be detained or deported on suspicion – not conviction – of engaging in criminal activity.

Israel has also expanded its detention complex in the Negev, which now houses some 2,000 asylum seekers, including children. Refugee advocates fear that lengthy detention periods and limited access to asylum coerce asylum seekers to leave Israel. In March 2013, it was revealed that Israel had secretly repatriated some 1,000 Sudanese. In March 2013, an Eritrean man facing three years in detention agreed to go to Uganda, but was later denied entry to that country and deported to Cairo where he faces deportation to Eritrea. In response, the Attorney General stated that no Eritreans would be repatriated out of detention, later noting that Sudanese would not be repatriated from detention either until it had examined the issue more fully.

Israel has also nearly completed building a fence along the Sinai. While numbers of unauthorized entries have dropped dramatically – the first quarter of 2013 saw less than 20 per month – concerns remain that those fleeing persecution are not being allowed into Israel, instead being left in Egypt where they may face further harm.

It is not clear yet what the future holds for asylum seekers in Israel. HIAS and other agencies can attest to the fact that many are in constant fear of detention or deportation. The national elections held in January 2013 led to the appointment of Gideon Saar as Interior Minister. In April 2013, Minister Saar stated that “this is one of the most difficult, sensitive, and charged issues Israeli society has to deal with” and that “the government’s policy is to return the infiltrators to where they came from… The problem wasn’t created in a day, and it’s inadvisable to create an impression that it can be solved in a day.” Whether his leadership will pave the way to greater protections for asylum seekers in Israel, policy or practice, is yet to be determined.

Recent Updates

As part of HIAS’ operations in Israel, HIAS works closely with the Israeli government in efforts to establish an Israeli asylum system. In response to the recent wave of xenophobic violence, HIAS is currently working to educate Jewish communities about this situation and raise Israeli public awareness about asylum issues. Mark Hetfield, HIAS President and CEO, has written several op-ed pieces on the topic of asylum in Israel.

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