I recently spoke with two refugees who were resettled to the United States after being denied refugee status in Israel. Both had spent significant amounts of time in prison in Israel, one learning completely fluent Hebrew over the course of a five year prison sentence. The US government recognized them as refugees largely because of refugee status they had obtained before entering Israel. Israel, at the time their claims were rejected, had only accepted for refugee status two applicants out of the 3,000 allowed to apply by 2011, and out of the tens of thousands of asylum seekers in the country as a whole. By the end of the year, the number had risen to only eight. These two refugees now in the US didn’t make the cut.
Minister of Interior Eli Yishai defends his policy towards asylum seekers, including detainment, on the grounds that they are “migrant workers”. Not only does he not know this, but the reason he does not know this is because of the policy he supports: deporting or detaining all, with few opportunities for an individual Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process. Worse, the denial of RSD may also be a strategy of preventing resettlement.
One reason that resettlement in other countries is largely impossible is that Israel denies over 99% of claims, including claims that even the US – known for a very stringent RSD process – would accept. The case of Eritreans is the most extreme example, with none yet to receive refugee status despite the fact that the US provides 66% of Eritreans refugee status and Canada 96% of Eritreans refugee status.
Refugee status and residency within Israel is itself necessary because it is unclear that other countries would be willing to accept refugees – Australia has rejected all applicants for resettlement from Israel and Canada has only accepted seven refugees, according to this article from The Canada Jewish News. One of the refugees who I spoke to in the US said he believed around eight refugees were resettled to the US in a largely one-off ad-hoc program, though there may have been others. Yet, this small number may be partially the result of an RSD process in Israel that rejects claims that other countries would overwhelmingly accept.
Worryingly, Israel’s denial of resettlement to other countries is part of a longer chain of countries that prevent resettlement in other countries, in order to prevent new asylum-seekers from arriving out of hope of reaching another country. For example, Egypt has made efforts to prevent refugees from entering Israel, possibly to prevent more refugees from entering Egypt.
Not only is this morally wrong when refugees are not given rights in the host country due to the same logic – to prevent entrance of more refugees – but the more countries act this way, the more refugees stay within their borders. In the end, policies are both reprehensible to refugees’ rights and possibly against the interests of those who do not want refugees in their country. This is not to say that a calculation should be made to determine if a greater number of refugees will be inside a country that allows resettlement versus denies resettlement. Refugees should be protected, through resettlement or local settlement, regardless. My point is that it is unclear that countries denying resettlement diminishes the number of refugees within their borders, yet it is clear that denying resettlement does deny refugee rights. This is especially true for a country like Israel, where circumstances are better than in Egypt even if refugees cannot reach North America or Europe from Israel.
In Israel, resettlement is closely tied to RSD in two ways. Denying resettlement is wrong because refugees cannot get refugees status in Israel, and denying resettlement is also partially the result of refugees not obtaining refugee status in Israel. The few refugees resettled in the US from Israel are an exception that proves the rule: Israel does not have a working RSD process and one must obtain refugee status before entering Israel in order to have any hope of finding a country where they can live in freedom and security.
It is clear that an RSD process is unnecessary to ensure refugee rights in Israel, versus persecution in countries of origin after deportation. Yet, meeting two refugees resettled in the US, who were lucky enough to have had their claims heard by decision making bodies outside of Israel, it is also clear that access to an RSD process can be the difference between imprisonment in Israel and residency in other safe countries. To be clear, the stark contrast in their treatment in Israel versus the US does not indicate that the US has a significantly better refugee policy, because unrecognized refugees in the US also face discrimination, detainment, and deportation. Nor is the stark difference an indication that resettlement is an alternative to refugee status in Israel. Rather, any policy which includes resettlement is dependent on refugee status in Israel, and resettlement is one aspect of a national refugee policy that is now an impossibility.