Worlds Colliding: Jewish Ethics and Refugee Law Through the Lens of the Shoah

Posted by Aliyah Phillips on Fri, Oct 29, 2010 at 16:59 pm

Below are the reflections of Aliyah Phillips, as she progressed through her legal internship at HIAS' office in Tel Aviv, Israel.

After completing my first year of law school, I began the summer of 2010 feeling that I was about to embark on two very separate journeys. One would bring me to HIAS in Israel to intern in the field of refugee law; the other would bring me to New York, Germany, and Poland through Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics (FASPE) to study professional ethics using the Holocaust as a lens.

Within the first week of my internship with HIAS, I realized that my two supposedly separate summer activities were profoundly interrelated. I learned that international refugee law was a powerful ethical response on behalf of the international legal community to the Holocaust. After the Holocaust, the international legal community realized the importance of creating a legal structure to accommodate those who escape from countries of origin where they have a well-founded fear of persecution. Additionally, the international legal community realized the necessity of requiring countries to recognize the rights of refugees, and to provide refuge to those who qualify within the definition. It is valuable to recognize that the principles and interests that modern refugee law aims to protect has much to do with World War II.

The greatest lesson I learned from my internship with HIAS is that Israel has recently taken praiseworthy steps to enhance its mechanisms for upholding its international responsibility to assess the claims of asylum seekers within its borders. The Jewish value of welcoming the stranger provides a strong motivation for Israel’s policy makers to take Israel’s international responsibility toward asylum seekers seriously. Within the past four years, Israel has experienced a significant influx in asylum seekers, from approximately 100 per year to 600-1000 per month. Most of the asylum seekers come from African countries such as Sudan, Eritrea, and Nigeria. The increase of asylum seekers in Israel stems largely from a violent response by Egyptian police to a refugee demonstration outside of the UNHCR office in Cairo in 2005.

In 2008, Israel decided to establish its own refugee status determination units to cope with the influx of asylum seekers. Prior to that time, the UNHCR was responsible for assessing all asylum claims in Israel. The Ministry of Interior, the UNHCR, and HIAS all cooperated to train the first ministry officers to assess refugee claims, and refugee status determination units have been operating in several locations in Israel since July 2009. Through my internship with HIAS, I was able to witness firsthand the system in its early growth phase. The system demonstrated Israel’s commitment to upholding the Jewish value of welcoming the stranger as well as its democratic commitment to proper, fair, and efficient refugee status determination.

Simultaneously, the FASPE experience taught me about my own ethical responsibilities as an individual when it comes to refugee status and determination in a greater context. There are some aspects about international refugee law that I find ethically problematic such as “refugee roulette.” “Refugee roulette” is a term coined by refugee law experts indicating the inherent arbitrariness of refugee status determination. Because the definition of “refugee” according to the 1951 Convention is so subjective, the identity of the individual decision maker reviewing the asylum claim has just as much influence on the outcome as the claimant’s testimony. Under the current international legal definition of a refugee, it is still possible that claimants whose realities fit the definition of a bona fide refugee can be deported to countries where they face persecution. Throughout my internship, I faced moral dissonance between what I saw as a need for people to be protected and an international legal scheme that fails many of them. I am devoting a great deal of intellectual effort to researching and writing about how the current international refugee law and practice fails too many bona fide refugees.

The intersection of my internship at HIAS Israel and FASPE program was a perfect intellectual fit, demonstrating the profound conversation between professional ethics through the lens of the Holocaust and the modern practice of refugee law.

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