HIAS Helps Israel Establish Refugee Guidelines for Growing Number of Arriving Africans

Posted on Wed, Jan 21, 2009 at 15:29 pm

(Tel Aviv, Israel)– In one of the great ironies of 21st century life, Israel, established 60 years ago as a refuge for the tattered remnants of Europe’s Jewry, has now become a destination for Africans fleeing conflict in places like Darfur and the horn of Africa. Since late 2005, when an Israeli court determined that those seeking refuge in Israel could no longer be automatically detained – at roughly the same time that Egyptian police massacred Sudanese refugees demonstrating in Cairo – Israel has become the refuge of choice for thousands of Africans.

Even in the last weeks, as battles raged in Gaza, some thirty refugees have been arriving daily – sneaking and/or smuggled over the Egyptian border. Experts estimate that no fewer than 15,000-16,000 undocumented Africans are living in the shadows in Israel, causing a humanitarian crisis of growing proportion and concern.

Enter HIAS, the international migration agency of the American Jewish community, which, since late last year, has been working at the behest of Israeli authorities to set up a formal system for refugee processing. Four Israelis have already been trained as asylum officers in the U.S. with the goal of having a new office in the Interior Ministry up and running by early spring that will include some 30 officers trained in refugee status determination.

“HIAS is uniquely positioned to act as a catalyst for the various parties – the Israel government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to work together to develop a system.,” explains Joel Moss, HIAS’ Refugee Status Determination Consultant , who is on assignment in Israel this year. “As independent consultants, we are best able to set personal and eligibility criteria to determine whether an individual is truly a refugee. We have the legitimacy and reputation in this field that gives us the ability to carry this project forward.”

HIAS has been working with refugees and other vulnerable migrants since its founding in 1881, most recently in Latin America and Africa, in addition to its traditional work with Jewish refugees.

The nuances of refugee status determination – particularly in Israel – are multiple. For instance, according to Moss, the overwhelming question confronting the Israel public is how will the influx of African migrants affect the character of the Jewish state? Just as important: How does a Jewish state settle within its borders enemy nationals from mostly Arab countries without endangering the population at large?

“Some of these people are committing a crime in their country by even setting foot in Israel,” he says, illustrating the degree of enmity between Israel and many of its African neighbors. The situation largely arose because Israel is one of few countries in the world without a refugee policy embedded in its legal system, though it was one of the first signatories to the 1951 UN convention on refugees.

“There is no body of case law on refugee status in Israel,” Moss explains. Nor is their legal aid or pro bono work in this area. However, in the last several years, HIAS under its former Israel Director Neil Grungras has run legal clinics to train interested lawyers in this field. It was based specifically on this work that the Israel government turned to HIAS.

Meanwhile, the numbers of African refugees within Israel keep growing.

“This is a different and ironic type of Yeziat Mizrayim, exodus from Egypt,” Moss comments on what he calls the “significant racism” in Egypt. “In addition, as Sudanese attempt to cross the borderlands into Israel, they are frequently shot and killed by Egyptian patrols.”

Once those on the run arrive in Israel, they are cared for by a number of NGOs (non-governmental, voluntary agencies) that provide food, shelter, clothing and psychosocial support. Those who are detained by the authorities end up primarily in the Ktziot Detention Center, where conditions are far better than in the slums of Cairo or in refugee camps, Moss notes.

For HIAS, there is only one solution – to assist Israel in establishing a permanent set of guidelines that will apply to those seeking asylum in the Jewish homeland. “In this area, Israel has responsibility to be a light unto nations, and HIAS is there to help,” states Moss.