Refugees and People Seeking Asylum

Around 50,000 refugees and people seeking asylum – mostly from Eritrea and Sudan – live in Israel, having walked through the desert and entering Israel through the Sinai. Some live in detention centres in Southern Israel, while others face an uncertain legal situation, difficulty working, and often have inadequate access to health care and education.

With war endemic in so many parts of our world, millions of people are fleeing persecution and violence in the hope of establishing new lives for their families in safer countries. It is true in Australia, as well as in Europe, and Israel is no exception.

In recent years many have made the arduous journey from Africa, across the Sinai desert, seeking a safe-haven in Israel. Despite all of Israel’s security difficulties, the situation there is far preferable compared to the asylum seekers’ home countries such as Sudan or Eritrea.

Their journey is all too familiar to the story of the Jewish people who left Africa and crossed Sinai in search of a better future.

Watch Mutasim Ali, one of the leaders of the African refugee community in Israel, discuss the Holot detention centre on Israeli TV.

Like all countries grappling with the challenge of handling large waves of people seeking refuge, there are myriad problems associated with this crisis. Israeli authorities need to verify the backgrounds of those arriving to ensure they do not pose a security risk. There are health checks that need to be performed. And of course there is the enormous challenge of providing for the material needs of asylum seekers.

Since 2005 approximately 60,000 asylum seekers have entered Israel. A number of these asylum seekers have since returned home, or settled elsewhere, and approximately 45,000 still remain in the country. Israel has determined that it cannot repatriate a number of these, due to the very real threat that they would face persecution if returned, and has afforded them group protection.

Asylum seekers in Israel are governed by the “Anti-Infiltration Law”, legislation from the 1950s that was originally created to keep Palestinian refugees from trying to return to Israel after the War of Independence. Today, because of this law, they are known as ‘infiltrators’, which has largely informed the public discourse.

In the past, Prime Minister Netanyahu has said his government is “dealing with the problem of infiltrators by blocking their entry”, while Miri Regev, now a cabinet minister, called them “a cancer in our body.”

For years, upon their arrival in Israel, they were picked up in the Negev desert by army patrols and put on buses to South Tel Aviv. This caused enormous anxiety among the local working-class Israeli population, who felt under threat from so many single young African men. Examples of theft and other crimes only served to heighten the fears.

To address the problem, Israeli politicians adopted strategies similar to those used in Australia. From 2012, the government passed a law which allowed it to imprison refugees for up to three years in the Holot detention centre. Since that time, different iterations of the Anti-Infiltration Law have been struck down by the High Court of Justice for contravening Israel’s basic laws that protect human dignity and liberty.

Although most other countries work to process the refugee claims of people seeking asylum, Israel has continually refused to do so. This has resulted in Israel recognising fewer asylum seekers as refugees than any other Western country.

The New Israel Fund, along with some of its grantees, including the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, have been leading the campaign through the courts to improve the circumstances in which the asylum seekers find themselves. The courts have made numerous decisions which help the asylum seekers, including limiting the time they can be forcibly detained. Meanwhile temporary protection visas have been granted to the Sudanese and Eritreans which give them some ability to work.

The Israeli residents of South Tel Aviv remain concerned about the potential rise of crime among the asylum seekers. Whilst there have been instances of criminal activity, Israel Police data show that crime levels among the asylum seekers are lower than among the general Israeli population. Despite this, tempers flared in 2012 when a demonstration against asylum seekers turned violent, with African shop windows smashed and passers-by attacked.

Numerous right-wing politicians have sought to inflame the fears and gain support from the concerned residents. Then President Shimon Peres implored people to remain calm stating:

"Hatred of foreigners contradicts the fundamental principles of Judaism. I am well aware of the difficulties faced by the residents of South Tel Aviv [and other similar areas], but violence is not the solution."

Discussion Questions

  1. What moral responsibility does Israel have, as a nation established in the aftermath of Holocaust, in providing assistance to non-Jewish people in need?
  2. How is it possible for Israel to balance the need to assist asylum seekers fleeing war in Africa, with the need to provide security for its own citizens in such a volatile and dangerous region?
  3. Given the many economic challenges that Israel faces, is it reasonable to expect Israeli taxpayers to cover the financial burden of thousands of asylum seekers? How can this financial cost be managed in a way that helps both asylum seekers and broader Israeli society?