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Myths, facts and suggestions: Asylum seekers in Israel

Tuesday, January 24 2012

Asylum seekers’ are often confused with ‘migrant workers’ in Israel. Here is an info-sheet written by two experts in the field that explains the facts about the new faces in Israeli society, and suggests how the country should cope.

By Yonatan Berman and Oded Feller

‘They’re not refugees, they’re migrant workers’

More than 60 percent of the asylum seekers in Israel are Eritrean, and more than 25 percent are Sudanese – together, that’s 85 percent of the asylum seekers in the country. Israel has not examined the asylum requests of any Eritreans and Sudanese nationals.

But Israel does not deport Eritrean and Sudanese nationals. Indeed, in the absence of diplomatic ties, it would be difficult to deport someone to Sudan. But Israel enjoys full ties with Eritrea, such that there is no logistical barrier to the deportation of all Eritreans (who constitute the vast majority of asylum seekers in Israel). If they are all migrant workers, as various officials claim, why not deport them? The answer is simple: their lives in the country of origin are at risk. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon admitted as much in a recent Knesset hearing, explaining why returning Eritreans to their country is not on the agenda: “Eritrea has a regime described by the entire international community as a regime that does not protect human rights, and someone returning there is at risk – including risk of death.” Israel thus meets its commitment to the Refugee Convention to refrain from returning refugees to a place where their lives would be in danger. It is thus also abiding by UNHCR guidelines prohibiting the return of Eritrean asylum seekers.

The rate of recognition in the world for Eritrean asylum seekers is 84 percent. The global rate of recognition for Sudanese asylum seekers is 64 percent.

Is it possible that the liars are only coming to Israel?

They themselves say that they are coming to work”

The only question that asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan are asked by the Population Authority upon arrival to Israel is, “Why did you come?” Many answer that they came to work. However, that is not the method by which asylum applications are verified. The relevant question would be , “Why did you leave your country, and what will happen to you if you return?” If those questions were asked, many would be found eligible for refugee status.

Asylum seekers come from poor countries. Even if their motivation to come to Israel stems from this fact, and from the desire to improve their lives, this doesn’t mean that they are not refugees and not eligible for international protection.

Israel isn’t their first country of asylum. They should stay in Egypt”

International law does not require asylum seekers to ask for refugee status in the first country to which they flee. If this was the rule, third world countries– which already receive the majority of the world’s refugees – would be the only legitimate destinations. Countries are permitted to sign burden-sharing agreements regarding the intake of refugees, and to return refugees to countries of asylum where they had already resided. This is only legitimate if the receiving country is a safe country in which refugees enjoy protection.

Israel has no such agreement with Egypt, and Egypt isn’t a safe country and does not have asylum procedures; it does not enable free access to UNCHR and the International Committee of the Red Cross; it arrests asylum seekers; it deports asylum seekers to their countries of origin; it does not allow asylum seekers to work to support themselves; it does not give their children access to education.

The residents of South Tel Aviv and Eilat are suffering”

That’s true. But they are not the only ones. Asylum seekers also live in Ashdod, Jerusalem, Arad and elsewhere.

Asylum seekers live in Israel with deportation orders – which cannot be implemented – hanging over their heads. Their employment in Israel is predicated on the government’s agreement to refrain from enforcing an employment ban against their employers. They are not eligible for any form of aid. Their futures are obscured by fog. Government policies that prevent asylum seekers from reasonable work conditions – along with access to housing, health services, welfare and education – leave them impoverished.

As a result, high concentrations of asylum seekers have cropped up in poor areas, where some can afford shelter. The crowding contributes to already difficultl conditions, resulting in what has become an unbearable situation.

Asylum seekers do not choose to live in these conditions. Most of them are productive people. Many are educated. Government intervention to ensure their rights and assist them in housing, work, health, welfare and education would help rescue them from poverty and decrease the burden on poor areas. If the massive funds the government spends on the unnecessary detention of asylum seekers were diverted to help improve the infrastructure in the areas in which they live, the resident would no doubt greatly benefit as well.

Israel doesn’t need to help all the poor people in the world”

That’s true, but Israel does need to do its part in sharing the burden. In Israel, there are more than 45,000 asylum seekers. Most Western countries today deal with large numbers – but they’re not alone. States that border countries from which refugees flee are the ones who carry the heaviest burden, and they are in far worse economic shape than Israel. Many Sudanese asylum seekers are in Chad. Many Eritrean asylum seekers are in Ethiopia. Even Israel’s neighbors – Jordan and Syria – have received hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees in recent years. Israel is no different from other states. It is a strong country with strong institutions, and can handle the numbers of asylum seekers arriving.

There is a limit to the number of refugees you can take”

The Refugee Convention does not enable countries to set quotas of refugees. No quota can supersede the prohibition against returning people to where their lives would be at risk.

We’ll build a fence to prevent their entry”

Building a fence is allowed, but it won’t do away with Israel’s obligation to receive those whose lives are in danger.

We’ll build a huge prison, and when it’s established we won’t let them work”

The world’s largest prison for immigrants, slated for construction in the Negev, will hold between 10 and 15 thousand people. It will be an oppressive refugee camp, and won’t solve anything. There are already more than 45,000 refugees in Israel, and by the time it is established, there are likely to be more. The prison will quickly be filled to capacity. If the many asylum seekers who remain outside its walls cannot work, they’ll starve. Moreover, the detainees will ultimately be released, in order to make room for new arrivals. Except for abusing asylum seekers and their children, nothing will be achieved. Estimates show that Israel will spend hundreds of millions of shekels on the facility, and more than a billion a year to maintain it – all for nothing.

So what do you suggest?”

Instead of spending massive amounts on a detention facility, the government should invest in a mechanism for examining the asylum claims of Eritreans and Sudanese nationals, in order to protect the rights of those eligible for asylum and improve the infrastructure of impoverished areas. Whoever is eligible for protection will be recognized as a refugee. Whoever isn’t will be deported.

The situation in South Sudan has very slowly improved (though it appears to be deteriorating again), and some of its citizens have returned there. Hopefully, the situation in Eritrea and Sudan will similarly improve in coming years, enabling their citizens to return home. Israel should use its diplomatic channels to work toward this goal.

However, in the meanwhile, Israel should accept, like many other Western states, that it must appropriately deal with large numbers of asylum seekers. It must accept the reality that many of them will not be leaving Israel anytime soon.

Yonatan Berman is the director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the Academic Center of Law and Business. Attorney Oded Feller is director of the Immigration and Residency Project at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. This post originally appeared in Hebrew on their blog, Laissez Passer.

This post was translated by Noa Yachot

Articles - English

Forgotten: The stolen people of the Sinai

Thousands of poor migrants from across Africa are being kidnapped by Bedouin gangs

Refugees from sub-Saharan Africa are being kidnapped, tortured and ransomed for thousands of dollars in the Egyptian Sinai in what human rights activists say is the world's forgotten hostage crisis. Over the past year, thousands of desperate migrants from Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia have been kidnapped by Bedouin tribesmen who are taking advantage of continuing instability in Egypt to ramp up their lucrative trade.

Click Here to view 'Refugees on the move' graphic

Migrants have reported being rounded up by gang members and held in specially constructed jails where they are frequently tortured until relatives in Europe or Africa come up with thousands of dollars.

Testimony compiled by human rights groups reveals that torture with electric cables and molten plastic is routinely used against victims as they make desperate calls home to plead for cash. Many kidnap victims claim to have been raped by their abductors, and there are reports that captives who have been unable to raise funds have had organs removed for sale on the black market.

Critics have accused the international community of standing idle in the midst of a kidnapping scandal that has drawn little attention compared with Somali piracy, whose victims are often white employees of multinational corporations rather than poor Africans.

Father Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean priest based in Rome, receives regular calls to his Vatican office from the families of kidnapped migrants as they try to liaise with loved ones or kidnappers. "There are no real efforts being made to save these people," he told The Independent. "The inertia of the [international community] is a godsend for criminals who get rich. The millionaire business around this trafficking is forcing hundreds of families into debt for amounts that they will pay for decades, in order to save the lives of their son, daughter or husband. Many sell everything, or end up in the hands of usurers".

Most of the sub-Saharan migrants making their way to the Sinai desert are from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan – three impoverished African nations which have a history of persecuting political opponents and ethnic minorities. Most of those fleeing are hoping to reach Europe, where there are already sizeable populations from their countries.

Before the turmoil created by the Arab Spring, many migrants trekked through the Sahara to reach Libya, Algeria and Morocco in the hopes of finding work or catching a boat across the Mediterranean. Most now have no choice but to enter Europe via the Sinai and Israel, forcing them into the hands of Bedouin tribesmen who have long engaged in smuggling arms, drugs and people after years of chronic under-investment and prejudice from central government in Cairo.

Dr Khataza Ghondwe, an expert on sub-Saharan Africa working for the non-governmental organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide, says the plight of kidnapped refugees has been ignored for too long. "The Sinai has been a pretty lawless place for years and [ousted President Hosni] Mubarak made no effort to halt the abuse of refugees by tribes there," she said. "But since the revolution things have got even worse. Their plight has slipped off the radar entirely."

She thinks people within Eritrea, and not just the Bedouin, could be benefiting from the smuggling routes. "I was in Kenya earlier last year speaking to an Eritrean man," she said. "As we were talking, he got a call from his brother who was being held in the Sinai and asked for him to send money as soon as possible. The bank details he gave were for a branch in Asmara [the capital of Eritrea], not Egypt."

According to a recent Israeli government report, an estimated 11,763 people were smuggled into Israel through the Egyptian border in 2010. Last week, the Knesset passed new legislation making it easier for the authorities to speed up deportations, leading to an outcry from human rights groups.

Doctors working for Physicians for Human Rights Israel, a charity which examines migrants on arrival, conducted interviews with 800 refugees, with 78 per cent reporting that they had been kidnapped, tortured or held for ransom at some point during their journey through the Sinai. A separate survey by the Hotline for Migrant Workers, based in Tel Aviv, found that 50 per cent of migrants had reported being raped in the Sinai, including many men.

Egypt's ability to police the Sinai has been historically hindered by its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, which limits the number of troops Cairo is allowed to place on the country's eastern flank. After a successful attempt by Islamist suicide bombers to infiltrate the Sinai border last August, Israel has allowed the Egyptians to increase troop numbers, but little of the extra resources have been put into tackling the human trafficking networks.

The migrants have given testimonies with detailed descriptions of where they were held. One group operating out of the Mansoura area is known to be run by a man called Abu Musa and his brothers Ali Hamed and Salim. They use two distinctive red houses with Chinese pagodas outside their gates to imprison their captives. The towns of Rafah, Mansoura and Al-Jorra are also known to contain purpose-built prisons for hostages. Despite the details provided, however, authorities are taking little action.

The most recent telephone call received by Father Zerai was last Thursday, when a woman said she was part of a group of 20 who had been taken captive, including six children. "The woman who called for help talks about continuous mistreatment, starvation and violence," he said. The kidnappers reportedly demanded $30,000 for each captive and threatened to remove organs from those who could not pay.

"The situation is getting worse and worse," added Father Zerai. "Something must be done."

Tortured in the desert: Smugglers' victims

TLS: A 19-year-old Eritrean woman

When I was still in Sudan, I agreed to pay the smugglers $2,500 to transfer me to Israel. When I arrived in Sinai, the smuggler sold me, along with a group of other people, to another smuggler named Abdullah. Abdullah demanded an additional $10,000 from me. I had no way to raise that sum of money. Abdullah raped me for five days and two other smugglers raped me as well. As a result of all these rapes, I got pregnant. Only after eight months was my father able to send the smugglers $5,000; they released me and allowed me to cross the border to Israel. I must have an abortion. My husband should not know what happened to me in the desert.

MN: A 35-year-old Sudanese man

The smugglers asked whether we knew anyone in Israel or Europe and asked for our relatives' phone numbers. They would call our relatives and then bring a stick and beat us so that we could be heard shouting and crying. They told our relatives that if the money arrived that day, we'd be in Israel the following day. Sometimes they asked for $2,500 and sometimes for an additional $3,000. The more someone cried when they were beaten, the more money their relatives would send.

AIS: A 21-year-old Eritrean woman

So that we would convince our relatives to send money, the smugglers beat our shins with a stick. They also burned our arms and legs with a plastic stick with hot metal at the end. I still have wounds and scars from the beatings and the burns. I was a virgin when I arrived in the desert. During the first few times that I was raped I cried and resisted, but that didn't help. They wouldn't leave me alone. After that I stopped resisting. Only when $2,800 arrived did the smugglers unchain me. They transferred me to someone named Ibrahim and he transferred me and 30 other people to the Israeli border.

Articles - English

Eritrean refugees kidnapped, killed: UNHCR chief

 (AFP) – 3 hours ago  

KASSALA, Sudan — Eritrean refugees are being kidnapped and sometimes killed by human traffickers, the head of the UN's refugee agency said in Sudan on Thursday, calling for global action against the crimes.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, spoke after a tour of the Shagarab refugee camp which receives about 2,000 asylum-seekers every month, largely from neighbouring Eritrea where many have fled military service.

"Taking profit of the desperate situation of many Eritreans that are leaving the country we have now a network, a criminal network, of smugglers and traffickers," Guterres told reporters.

"People are kidnapped for ransom," and in Egypt's Sinai peninsula where some end up, they have been "killed for the traffic of organs", he said.

To deal with the "extremely serious" problem, the UNHCR will work with Sudanese authorities and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), an intergovernmental body, to strengthen local police with additional vehicles, computers and other equipment, Guterres said.

"This is not only a problem of Sudan" because the gangs are global, he added, and countering their "very lucrative" activity requires combined action by different governments.

UNHCR is seeking $2 million from donors for its joint project with the IOM to research the trafficking and kidnapping issue, improve security in the refugee camps and develop local authorities' ability to deal with the problem.

Young migrants are turning to illegal transportation by smugglers to reach the Sudanese capital Khartoum, the Middle East or Europe, where they hope to find greater opportunities, UNHCR said in a briefing paper.

But the agency said it received "numerous reports" last year of refugees and others being held for thousands of dollars in ransom.

"They're being taken through the country by criminal groups and subject to kidnapping. This is happening here in the east of Sudan regularly," said Felix Ross, the UNHCR's senior protection officer.

"Daily, human trafficking is happening here," one Eritrean refugee told AFP.

Articles - English

IN PHOTOS: Eritrean refugees protest torture, rape in Sinai

IN PHOTOS: Eritrean refugees protest torture, rape in Sinai


Tuesday, 29 November 2011 13:13 Alternative Information Center (AIC)

On Friday morning, Eritrean refugees gathered outside the US embassy in Tel Aviv, in hopes of bringing the American government's attention to the plight of Eritrean asylum seekers who face torture and rape at the hands of the smugglers who take them to the Israeli border. 

Desperate to attempt a brutal dictatorship in Eritrea--that includes mandatory military service for young men--Eritrean asylum seekers often flee to Israel. They make the trip on foot, crossing through Egypt and the Sinai, where they rely on smugglers to take them to the Israeli border. 


According to a report compiled by Physicians for Human Rights- Israel:


Groups of refugees, mainly from Eritrea, are being held captive by smugglers at torturecamps in the El-Arish area while on the journey through the Sina

i to Israel. The smugglers are demanding ransoms of thousands of dollars for the release of each captive. Methods used to apply pressure on the captives’ relatives to pay up include systematic violence and torture of the hostages. Smugglers telephone captives' relatives so they can hear the cries of pain over the phone. Survivors report the use of systemic violence, including punching, slapping, kicking, and whipping. Forms of torture include burial in sand, electric shocks, hanging by the hands and legs, branding with hot metal, as well as rape and sexual abuse.


Once in Israel, Eritrean refugees face a policy of non-policy--the state simply does not process requests for asylum. Without a work visa, asylum seekers have extreme difficulties supporting themselves. Other than the services supplied to them by human rights organizations, they have no access to health care. They receive no social services and many are homeless, sleeping in the country's parks and streets. 


here are an estimated 27,000-35,000 African refugees in Israel, most from Sudan and Darfur. Israel is currently building a detention facility to imprison asylum seekers, including unaccompanied minors, children, and those who have fled genocide in Darfur. 


Photos: Jillian Kestler-D'Amours; text: Mya Guarnieri

Articles - English

Refugees: an Appeal to the State of Israel to Respect their Human Rights


by Roberto Malini, Holocaust historian and co-president of EveryOne Group, an international human rights organization.

Milan, November 29th, 2011. I am deeply attached to the State of Israel and its people. For many years I have argued that anti-Zionism has replaced anti-Semitism in Europe. Anti-Semitism is an ideology that stems from the same ethnic hatred that inspired the anti-Jewish persecutions of the past, but it is being exploited by the new anti-Semites to justify their intolerance.

In the name of anti-Zionism, the European Union is not only indifferent to the dangers that Israel is exposed to, it is also indifferent to the human rights that are violated by those who follow extremist religious ideologies. In countries where fundamentalism is influential, women have lost their social equality, gays are persecuted and sentenced to imprisonment, torture and often death, while other minorities and free thinkers are being repressed and silenced.

In the name of this new anti-Semitism many people have forgotten how the secularization of society is the basis of democracy, and that is not enough to "vote" to build just, civilized and democratic countries. However, despite my love and my spiritual closeness to the people of Israel, I cannot remain silent before policies that the state is using  against sub-Saharan migrants. The Jewish people have been victims of slander for so many centuries, yet today the Israeli politicians and authorities are making use of the same slander and lies to refuse this new persecuted people the right to asylum or international protection. When the authorities refer to the refugees who arrive in Israel after fleeing from serious and recognized humanitarian crises in Eritrea, Sudan and other African nations, they ignore the tragedy these desperate people have been subjected to. They call them "illegal immigrants", "infiltrators" ("mistanenim" in Hebrew), and "illegal workers".They ignore the suffering and persecution they have been subjected to in Eritrea and Darfur, and claim that these young people have only come to Israel to earn more money than they did back in Eritrea or Egypt. But in their homeland they have suffered repression and serious human rights violations, while in Egypt, at best, they are imprisoned for long periods (from one to two years) and are then deported. There is no dignity in the Egyptian prisons, where the prisoners suffer, fall sick and often die. Refugees who do not end up in prison, fall into the hands of traffickers, who perform all sorts of atrocities to force their relatives, who are abroad, to pay large ransoms of up to 30/40 thousand dollars per head. Most of the prisoners in the hands of the people smugglers die from torture. Many others, who cannot pay the ransom, are transferred to the black market in human kidneys. Egypt is the third country in the world for human kidney trafficking. The girls and children are raped, tortured and destroyed both physically and psychologically. When the refugees reach Israel, they are transferred to Saharonim prison and subjected to investigations by the "Infiltration Unit", whose job it is not to ascertain if these desperate young people are entitled to international protection, but instead to gather evidence and clues about their "illegal immigrant" status. There is no humanity, no search for the truth, just mystification, guided interviews and ideological falsehood. At least 3,000 Africans are currently being held as "illegal workers" in the detention centre of Saharonim.

The prison is overcrowded and men, women and children are being detained in inhumane conditions. Inside there is a special court with judges who decide the fate of refugees without even granting them the right to a defence. The judgements are made inside closed doors, without the people of Israel knowing the dynamics of the proceedings, proceedings that do not respect the international agreements on the rights of refugees. How come you fail to remember, Israel, the courts of Nazi Germany, in which the fate of so many Jews was decided? Many of the refugees detained at Saharonim are victims of torture, beatings, and rape by Bedouin traffickers, but the medical care is insufficient, and psychological assistance is non-existent. The future is uncertain for everyone. The few who are granted temporary protection will have to live as beggars (or even as slaves) in Israel, without the hope of finding work, without any rights. My humanitarian organization EveryOne Group is asking the Parliament and Government of Israel to put an end to these unacceptable violations of refugees' rights, women's rights, and the rights of children. The people of Israel have a long history, with countless periods of persecution. Its people have known hatred, slavery, violence, and killings. They are a people who, thanks to the legacy of pain and persecution, now have wisdom and humanity in their DNA. They are a people who, unlike others, can find the answers for the future by looking back to their history. Do not be equal to your torturers, people of Israel! Do not strike with merciless and unjust laws those who are weak and persecuted! Do not dehumanize others! Do not remain indifferent or lie when faced with the suffering and death of the most vulnerable of people! Do not open those terrible ghettoes once more! Do not deport the refugees! Step away from that spirit of intolerance that produced Auschwitz: be the Promised Land for those who have no land. Be just and humane, people of Israel! When you yourselves have set a good example, it will be time to ask other nations to be fair; it will be time to appeal for the resettlement of the refugees you are unable to offer protection to; it will be time to demand freedom and social justice in the regimes the refugees are fleeing from; it will be time to awaken the conscience of the world and rediscover - once special interests are overcome - a brotherhood that unites all humanity, and finally allows it to walk together towards a civility of equals.


In the photo, Saharonim 

Articles - English

Decision of the Government of Eritrea to terminate ongoing programmes under the 10th European Development Fund. (15/11/2011)

Decision of the Government of Eritrea to terminate ongoing programmes under the 10th European Development Fund. (15/11/2011)

On 15 November 2011, the EU Delegation in Asmara received a letter from the Minister of National Development and National Authorising Officer for EU Cooperation, H.E. Minister Giorgish Teklemichael, stating that the Government of the State of Eritrea intended to close all ongoing programmes under the 10th European Development Fund.

The letter stated that the decision stemmed from the Government's intention to fully review and finaliz


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