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Israel's refugee parsimony

Israel's refugee parsimony

First published by Walla!

By: Sigal Rozen, guest columnist Monday, 22 November 2010, 16:56

The Interior Minister portrays Israel as a country that treats refugees fairly. But in practice it just about ignores asylum seekers’ visa applications. Sigal Rozen thinks we have a short memory

At a Knesset committee hearing examining the problem of foreign workers on 22 November [Interior] Minister Eli Yishai stated that "there is no country in the world that treats refugees in as and humane way as does the State of Israel." It is unclear on what basis did Yishai make his statement given that today there is no country in the world as stingy as Israel in providing visas for refugees. According to the latest statistical report of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, as at the end of 2009, there were 8,806,867 refugees in final destination countries around the world. Outside of Israel the percentage recognised as refugees was 47 per cent. In Israel, however, the recognition percentage for the same year was 0.2 per cent.

In 2009, about 274 500 asylum seekers were recognised as refugees. The US accepted 79,000, Canada took 12,500 while Australia took in 11,100 refugees. And how many were absorbed by Eli Yishai’s fair and humane government? Only two. Only two people were recognised as refugees in Israel in 2009. I may not know them personally, but I am rather confident that not Sudan or Eritrea. I know this for sure because Israel does not process asylum requests made by citizens of Sudan or Eritrea. And therefore, no Eritrean or Sudanese application was processed as required by the Refugee Convention. Consequently none has been recognised as a refugee. Sudan is an enemy country. So for years Israel has been able to avoid accepting applications from its citizens.

Eritrea’s case is different. Israel has rather good economic relations with Eritrea. It would be a shame to spoil those for the sake of some 17 000 refugees who escaped from one of the most brutal regimes in the world today.

The illustrious speakers at the committee hearing - Interior Minister Eli Yishai, Major General Amos Gilad, the Population and Immigration Authority head Amnon Ben-Ami and other MKs reiterated a mantra: "These people are not refugees!". The State authorities have painstakingly managed to avoid processing asylum seekers’ applications by Eritreans and Sudanese, which who between them constitute the vast majority of asylum seekers. So the fact that none of the asylum seekers claims have been tested allows the authorities to assert that they are infiltrating economic migrants as they have not been recognised as refugees.

So economic migrants choose only Israel?

An internal Justice Ministry report described Eritrea, the country from which the majority of “infiltrating economic migrants” are fleeing, as a country where "human rights violations and political persecution are widespread and include the holding of prisoners of conscience without charge or trial, persecution on religious grounds, the disappearance of citizens and more." 88 per cent of asylum seekers from Eritrea were recognised around the world in 2009 as refugees under a rigorous interpretation of the International Convention on the Status of Refugees. But if one were to rely on what was said at the committee hearing, for some strange and unknown reason Israel had only received economic migrants. Evidently genuine refugees go to other countries.

But wonder of wonders, though only Eritreans economic migrants infiltrate Israel, when they do get expelled by IDF, under the "Hot Return Procedure," also known under the clinical euphemism of "coordinated return procedure", they vanish. Their families are unable to track them down. They disappear as if they were genuine refugees whose lives were in danger.

Not only does Israel not treat refugees in a humane and fair as claimed by the Interior Minister, but it abuses refugees through threats of forced deportation, failure to grant work permits and the issuing of new cruel regulations. Nevertheless, because an even crueller fate awaits them in their homelands, they continue to use their limited resources to make their way here. Committee Chairperson Yaakov Katz (“Katzaleh”) describes the refugees as a "malignant cancer spreading throughout the country." We do have a short memory.


Sigal Rozen is the Public Activity Director for the Migrant Workers Hotline.

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