Refugees in Israel
Israel is a reluctant host to 46,437 African asylum seekers predominantly from Eritrea (73%) and Sudan (19%) and a small minority (8%) arriving from several other African countries. The state policy toward asylum seekers (particularly Eritreans and Sudanese) is one of temporary non-deportation, officially referred to as “group protection.” Asylum seekers in Israel are denied basic rights and access to social services and the government of Israel has employed various policies to pressure asylum seekers to leave – including indefinite arbitrary detention, refusal to accept and review asylum claims, limitation of access to basic state-sponsored services, incitement and coerced repatriation. The Supreme Court of Israel has, in two distinct decisions, affirmed that the State’s treatment of African asylum seekers is unacceptable and violates fundamental laws concerning human dignity and liberty. The Court insisted on a comprehensive policy that seriously tackles this issue, but the government remains noncompliant.
Prevention of Infiltration Law
The Prevention of Infiltration Law was passed and implemented in the 1950s, to address Palestinian refugees who re-entered Israel after the establishment of the state of Israel. Whether seeking to return to their homes or to commit terrorist attacks, these individuals were identified as “infiltrators,” highlighting the illegal nature of their border-crossing and the perceived danger they posed to national security. Since 2008, the government of Israel began to apply this term to African asylum seekers and actively sought to utilize the Law against them. In the subsequent years, the Israeli Knesset worked diligently to draft a new amendment to the Law that would officially include African asylum seekers. In 2011 the Knesset successfully passed Amendment III (Amendment I and II referred to Palestinian populations) and implemented it in 2012.
Amendment III is the first amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law relevant to asylum seekers. It allowed for administrative detention of individuals crossing the border with Egypt “illegally” for up to 3 years and for those coming from “enemy states” for up to 7 years. The Israeli Supreme Court voided Amendment III and ordered the State to release some 2,000 men, women and children from prison, and to review all of their asylum claims within 90 days. The State did not fully comply, releasing only women and children and a small number of humanitarian cases without reviewing their refugee claims, and then passing Amendment IV that became effective immediately.
Amendment IV allowed for administrative detention of anyone crossing the border with Egypt “illegally” for 1 year and interminable administrative detention in Holot of individuals who cannot be deported. The State’s explicit intention was to prevent asylum seekers from settling in Israeli cities, although it is clear that it wanted to break the spirit of asylum seekers and to coerce them to sign “voluntary returns” and thereby self-deport. The Israeli Supreme Court voided Amendment IV and ordered for immediate closure of Holot detention center, reduction of daily roll-calls from three to one, and release of asylum seekers held in Saharonim prison. The State did not fully comply, reducing roll calls to one per day and then proceeding to pass Amendment V that became effective immediately.
Amendment V allows for administrative detention of anyone crossing the border with Egypt “illegally” for up to 18 months. The Israeli Supreme Court is expected to rule on its legality in May of 2015.
Refugee Protest Movement
In 2014, African asylum-seekers in Israel came out with a clear voice and asserted themselves as lead players in the process of securing their own rights. A strong cadre of leaders surfaced from within the community and assumed key roles in community mobilization, awareness raising and advocacy. The movement inspired and instilled hope among asylum seekers in spite of the dire situation and brought awareness to Israeli society. For the first time, asylum-seekers were given a face and a name. Key leaders stated their goals and objectives in Hebrew to the local media. Their demands were reasonable, and their approach was orderly and nonviolent, contrary to popular stereotypes. The movement put asylum-seekers on the agenda and generated sympathy among the general public, key decision-makers and stakeholders. At its height, the movement generated participation of 20,000+ asylums seekers and their supporters.