U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Gives Prestigious Partnership Award to HIAS: For collaborative efforts with USCIS and the Israeli Ministry of the Interior in building an Israeli asylum system

Posted on Thu, Sep 16, 2010 at 13:52 pm

(New York, NY) – HIAS, the international migration agency of the American Jewish community, today received the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) Director’s Award for Effective Interagency Cooperation. The award recognizes HIAS’ contributions to the Israeli government’s refugee status determination program (RSD). Receiving the award simultaneously were the Israeli Government’s Ministry of Interior (MOI), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the U.S. Department of State.

In presenting the award to HIAS, USCIS Director Alejandro N. Mayorkas said: “USCIS seeks to perform its mission with the same inspiring commitment to international protection as HIAS. The accomplishments of HIAS and the other partners in this effort exemplify the success that can come from innovative international partnerships that include governments, international organizations, and non-governmental entities.”

While Israel was the first country in the Middle East to sign the Refugee Convention of 1951, so few asylum seekers entered Israel that it was able to rely on the UNHCR to decide refugee claims. By 2008, however, thousands of asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere began entering Israel through the Sinai. Israel therefore was compelled to build an asylum system that would both protect its borders and prevent refugees from being handed over to their persecutors. The Ministry of the Interior requested the expertise of the UNHCR, HIAS, and USCIS to assist in building a trained corps of Israeli asylum officers. HIAS took a lead role in designing and teaching freshly recruited Israeli asylum officers in refugee status determination procedures, working through its representative in Tel Aviv, Joel Moss, a former official on the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board.

HIAS did this in partnership with UNHCR, and both relied heavily on USCIS to train Israeli asylum supervisors in the United States and conduct trainings of asylum officers in Israel.

“We are deeply honored by USCIS’ recognition of our work to develop Israel’s Refugee Status Determination system,” said Marc Silberberg, chair of the HIAS Board of Directors, who accepted the award on behalf of the organization. “This was a unique collaborative effort between the non-governmental organization of HIAS, two governments, and the United Nations to develop a system that will give Israel the ability to regulate migration while protecting refugees.”

Added Mark Hetfield, HIAS’ senior vice president for policy and programs, “If an asylum system is arbitrary or more restrictive than the Refugee Convention requires, refugees’ lives are put at risk. If a system is under-resourced or employs standards that are too loose, a country can lose control of its borders. A fair and efficient asylum system can promote both refugee protection and border integrity. Achieving this balance requires a willingness to engage with many actors, to be open to criticism, to engage in dialogue, and to strike balances. It has been inspiring to see the Ministry of the Interior working with different actors to move toward a better system. There is still a lot of work to be done in Israel on the asylum front, but the progress made over just a few years has been very impressive. HIAS is proud to play a role in it, together with the Ministry of the Interior, UNHCR, USCIS, and the Department of State.”

The USCIS Director’s Award for Effective Interagency Cooperation recognizes “successful efforts to forge new collaborative relationships between USCIS and another entity that substantially contributes to the fulfillment of the missions of both parties.”