Being a Refugee in Israel
As of 2009, there are approximately 18,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Israel – a majority coming from Eritrea, Darfur and Southern Sudan. Refugees have fled repression, civil wars, slavery, torture, religious and political persecution and the danger of ethnically-motivated murder. The Refugee Rights Convention of 1951 was drafted as a response to the millions of Europeans who became refugees as a result of the horrors of the Holocaust and the Second World War. The State of Israel became a signatory to the Refugee Convention in 1954. Since then, the government has failed to codify its obligations towards refugees and to honor its responsibility to provide fair asylum and rights to ensure the livelihood and dignity of refugees.
What Are They Escaping From?
Most of the African refugees arriving in Israel come from Eritrea and Sudan. Eritrea has long been known as a country where grave violations of human rights take place: religious and political persecution, disappearances of citizens and use of torture by the government. The asylum seekers from Sudan include survivors from the Darfur region who have escaped continuous persecution and mass murder of civilian populations perpetrated by the government and armed militia groups. Other refugees come from Southern Sudan, a region brutally repressed by the Islamic regime in Khartoum, mainly on the basis of religious persecution. In much smaller numbers, refugees come to Israel from other countries known for human rights abuses such as Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar and Colombia.
On the Borderline
The Egyptian border is the main entry point for most refugees. The act of crossing the border remains dangerous in itself; the media has reported cases in which asylum seekers have been shot to death by Egyptian soldiers. Some of the refugees that successful cross the border are either held in detention facilities for protracted periods of time, or expelled directly to Egypt without being given access to asylum seeking procedures. Known as “Hot Return”, this conduct is a flagrant violation of international law. The Egyptian authorities have returned thousands of asylum seekers to the countries from which they’ve escaped, despite the clear danger to their lives. Refugees that remain in Egypt suffer discriminatory treatment and harsh prison conditions.
Without Status and Without Rights
Following an indeterminable period of imprisonment in Israel, some refugees are released on a temporary basis. Despite being released from a detention facility, refugees are not entitled to any social or medical services provided by the authorities. In 2008, the Interior Ministry assumed the responsibility from the UNHCR to conduct all procedures for the determination of refugee status. The Ministry provides protective documents for most of the asylum seekers but does not permit them to work – thus denying the refugees’ the ability to integrate and become functioning members of society.