Of Note: HIAS and the New Chalutzim- Creating an Asylum System in Israel

Posted by Gideon Aronoff on Wed, Feb 25, 2009 at 12:59 pm

HIAS has been a proud partner of the State of Israel since its founding, contributing to the ingathering of new immigrants and helping to create new institutions for the Jewish State. HIAS assisted Jews from Poland, Germany, Russia, Romania, Turkey, Yemen, Morocco, Ethiopia and other countries to immigrate to Israel. In 1955, HIAS contributed to the development of the Negev region when we established “HIAS House in the Negev,” a hostel for new arrivals coming to build the land.

While Israel’s needs have changed over the ensuing years, HIAS today continues its vital partnership with the government and people of Israel. Having just returned from a site visit to HIAS’ program in Israel, I can attest that in our sphere of expertise – international refugee protection and immigration – HIAS is continuing to live out Theodore Herzl’s historic Zionist maxim, “If you will it, it is no dream.”

For most, immigration to Israel is a simple story of Jews returning to the Jewish homeland. But today, the State of Israel and Israeli society face a daunting array of immigration challenges: non-Jews entering under the Law of Return, family reunification of non-Jewish Israeli citizens, migrant workers, victims of human trafficking, and non-Jewish refugees and asylum seekers. In each example, economic and social facts on the ground – including Israel’s proximity to Africa and porous border with Egypt – complicate the migration narrative. Though Israel was among the first nations to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention, it has struggled with how to appropriately fulfill its legal obligations and respond to its new role as a country of asylum for non-Jews. This reality now informs the work of many in the NGO sector, social policy think tanks, the media, the general public, and even government ministries – all seeking to define an Israeli approach to migration that is consistent with Israel’s Jewish and democratic values.

Enter HIAS, where we are beginning our work in this Israeli migration policy field through a special initiative to support the chalutzim (pioneers) who are creating a new institution – an Israeli asylum system to adjudicate the claims of asylum seekers from Africa and elsewhere who are looking for safe haven in Israel. While UNHCR has played, and continues to play, a crucial role in Israel, the process that is currently underway, with HIAS’ assistance, will result in the Israeli government fully engaging with its role as a signatory of the Refugee Convention. This new system will advance the cause of refugee protection and will help Israel address the current backlog of 14,000 Darfuri, South Sudanese, Eritrean, Georgian, and other asylum seekers, and others who are likely to arrive in the months and years to come.

HIAS and UNHCR also have engaged the United States Department of Homeland Security in the process; in 2008, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) Asylum Officer Basic Training Course trained four Israeli officials for four weeks in refugee law. USCIS has since expressed interest in continuing this training partnership in the U.S., as well as in Israel.

This HIAS initiative, funded by a special allocation from the HIAS Board of Directors, is providing senior experts in international refugee law, refugee adjudication procedures, and refugee resettlement to develop and implement a comprehensive asylum adjudication training program for the Israeli Ministry of the Interior (MOI). The MOI is currently in the process of hiring a team of 25 new refugee adjudicators to perform this new role. The training is set to begin shortly, but HIAS is providing intense one-on-one and small-group training and mentoring to the initial group of adjudicators already conducting asylum interviews.

During my trip I had the good fortune to visit the MOI facility in Lod, where asylum seekers are being registered and the first cases are being heard. While there, I met with two of the first group of adjudicators and left deeply impressed. Here were young and enthusiastic Israeli professionals totally dedicated to fulfilling their mission of service to the State of Israel and Jewish humanitarian values. Like the chalutzim before them, they were entering the unknown to build their country and society. And HIAS, as in years past, is standing with them and offering them the benefit of our 127 years of experience working with refugees as guidance in facing these challenges. This process, a joint activity of the Israeli government, HIAS, and UNHCR – along with key Israeli and international partners on the ground in Israel – will give Israel new tools to protect bona fide refugees while permitting the government, through an internationally valid process, to devise other appropriate approaches for applicants with unsuccessful claims.

As this process unfolds, HIAS will be there to follow up and mentor the new officers, to enrich their understanding of the law, and to help them navigate the early months of their new careers. In addition to our role in this Israeli refugee process, we also will be actively reaching out to government, NGO, and international players in Israel to develop future opportunities for HIAS to serve Israel as it explores its emerging complex immigration story.

As always, I welcome comments, questions, and feedback about this Of Note at HIAS.


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