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HIAS Calls for Protection of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel

SILVER SPRING, Md.—The Government of Israel recently announced its plans to imprison or potentially deport tens of thousands of Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers unless they leave voluntarily before April. The ultimatum follows a mounting campaign of escalation on the part of the Israeli government to pressure the roughly 38,000 African asylum seekers remaining in Israel to self-deport. While Israeli authorities contend that the population in question—most of whom entered Israel between 2007 and 2012—are economic migrants, HIAS and other rights groups argue that they are asylum seekers and refugees deserving of protection.

Israel’s Ministry of Interior acknowledges that thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel have submitted written asylum requests and are awaiting a response, while thousands more have been prevented from doing so. Media reports indicate that Rwanda and Uganda would be the African countries which asylum seekers currently in Israel would have the choice of traveling to, but the countries deny that such an agreement with Israel has been made.   

“A line has been crossed,” said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees. “Forcing asylum seekers to choose between imprisonment and self-deportation violates the international protections Israel helped create after the Holocaust to ensure that individuals fleeing war and genocide have the opportunity to find safety. In the United States, Israel, and around the world, HIAS and our supporters remain committed to addressing the global refugee crisis in a compassionate, humane, and legal way.”

Outside of Israel, Eritrean asylum seekers are granted legal status on average 84 percent of the time and Sudanese nationals 56 percent of the time. In Israel, fewer than 1% of asylum claims have been accepted. Additionally, numerous reports have documented the dangerous conditions asylum seekers face upon leaving Israel, including threats of trafficking, persecution, and exploitation.

“Outsourcing our humanitarian obligations to asylum seekers is not a sustainable or moral strategy,” stated HIAS Israel Country Director Sivan Carmel. “Israel has both a responsibility and a capacity to do the right thing and not put refugees’ lives in jeopardy. They came to us to seek protection and we cannot turn our backs on them. We cannot turn our backs on our own heritage.”  

On Monday, January 8, a group of North American Jewish leaders sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging him to protect these asylum seekers. In November, leaders from over two dozen major Jewish organizations sent a public letter to Netanyahu, saying “don’t deport refugees, let us help.” The Prime Minister’s Office responded to that letter, and now the Jewish leaders are pushing back.

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