Alon Tal

A myth-busting Passover primer on asylum seekers

There seems to be a great deal of disinformation about Israel’s refugee policy and the nature of the Eritrean and Sudanese refugees seeking asylum here.

Last week I organized an academic symposium at Tel Aviv University on the controversy surrounding the imminent expulsion of asylum seekers from Israel. Professor Shlomo Mor-Yosef, director of Israel’s Population and Migration Authority, presented the government’s position and answered questions for almost an hour. Then two panels of leading academic experts, community representatives, journalists and even a former minister of Interior shared their perspectives. Here’s what I learned:

At present 37,800 people are defined by the Israeli government as “asylum seekers,” the vast majority (72%) are from Eritrea and roughly 20% are Sudanese.

The deluge of refugees flooding into Israel is a relatively recent, but apparently ephemeral phenomenon. A decade ago, Israel, as the closest Western nation to Africa, became a major destination for people fleeing the continent. In 2011, more than 11,000 crossed into Israel illegally from the Sinai. But by then, Israel was already in the final stages of completing a fence along the Israeli/Egyptian border. By 2013, the fence stemmed the flow dramatically: barely a hundred arrived. By 2016, 18 refugees managed to cross into Israel from Sinai; in 2017 none at all.

Most of these refugees immediately requested asylum as political refugees. But the government’s policy was consistent and unwelcoming. The Ministry of Interior unfailingly defines the Africans coming to Israel as “economic refugees” who were not entitled to recognition under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees that Israel has long ratified. Many of those arriving were unceremoniously incarcerated or relegated to the Holot Detention Center in the Negev. Israel also began to provide modest payments and free flights to those willing to return “voluntarily.” Some 20,000 people chose this option.

Those Eritrean army deserters

But some 40,000 wish to stay. Most of them are young and employed in a range of menial jobs that Israelis prefer to avoid. Unlike asylum programs in Europe, however the, Israeli emigration bureaucracy is completely unreceptive to their appeals. One objective reason for the disparity is the perception of Eritrean military service here as opposed to Europe. The government’s consistent interpretation is that Eritreans who desert the military are not political refugees. Under the Convention, a refugee is someone “outside the country of his nationality” with a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

Israel’s position is difficult to justify when one considers actual conditions in Eritrea and Sudan as confirmed by a range of international agencies, academic researchers and journalists.

Eritrea is run by a dictator, President, Isaias Afewerki. In 1995 Afewerki made military service compulsory, under the pretense that it would produce a strong work ethic in the new nation. All adult citizens under the age of 50 are expected to enlist. Formally, service is supposed to last for only 18 months. In practice, conscription continues indefinitely — frequently well over a decade. Even though Eritrea is home to only 6 million people, it has among the largest standing armies on the continent: Some 5% of all Eritreans live in military barracks.

As the country is not presently at war, this means that most “soldiers” essentially find themselves as inmates in concentration camps where they are paid as little as 10 dollars a month to do a range of backbreaking work, such as construction or road paving. Frequently they provide the manual labor for projects that benefit military commanders or politicians.

Discipline is especially austere and rules harsh to an extreme. Physical abuse and torture are common as are the sexual favors for officers expected of female conscripts. Soldiers have no process for redressing complaints of exploitation, sexual or otherwise. In practice, the local military commanders arbitrarily control soldiers’ release from military service.

Young people who find themselves in the army cannot study, cannot plan a future, cannot enjoy the most minimal of human liberties. It is little wonder that thousands try to escape each year, even though there are many confirmed reports of conscripts being shot when trying to flee.

Israeli indifference to the suffering of Sudanese

The situation for many people in Sudan and Southern Sudan may actually be worse, as their society implodes and ethnic tensions become violent: Entire villages are destroyed and murder and rape are a common modus operandi in the conflict. At least one sixth of all Southern Sudanese have fled the country and are defined as refugees. Some of these desperate people somehow made it across the Sinai Peninsula, surviving the Bedouin bandits about whom reports of kidnapping, physical abuse and sadism are now legion.

But the Israeli government was not interested in hearing their stories: Between 2009 and 2017 – 15,400 requests for asylum were filed by Sudanese and Eritrean refugees to the Ministry of Interior. Of these 6,500 have been rejected while 8,500 are simply unanswered. Only 11 — just.0.2% of all requests — have been granted.

By way of comparison, in 2016 alone, 36,000 such asylum requests from Eritreans and 9,200 from Sudanese were reviewed in Europe. Some 64% of Eritreans were recognized as refugees deserving asylum, 27% received other protections and only 8% were rejected. Over half of the Sudanese requests were also allowed to stay.

“Do not hand them over to their master” (Deuteronomy)

Israel’s government has decided that asylum seekers without permits must leave the country for either Rwanda or Uganda by April 1st. (Children are exempted from the policy…. for now.) Reports coming in from those refugees who voluntarily agreed to go are not happy ones. For many, life has become intolerable. At best the Israeli government’s response can be characterized as obtuse and heartless. At worst – it is xenophobic and racist.

As we face the Passover season we are told to remember that we, the children of Israel, were once slaves in Egypt. It is not surprising therefore that the book of Deuteronomy (23:15) commands us: “If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master.” Ironically Israel’s refugee policy this Passover has opted for the opposite position.

My takeaway from all of this: Enjoy the seder and the Passover holiday this year with your family and friends. Celebrate liberty. But remember that we are the generation of Jews privileged to live free in our own land. That means that we have an obligation to adopt policies that reflect the unique historic sensitivities of our people – policies worthy of our collective decency and sympathetic heritage. For now, the Supreme Court has delayed this government’s shameful expulsion order. But we must demand that Israel do better.

About the Author
Alon Tal is a professor of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University. In 2021 and 2022, he was chair of the Knesset's Environment, Climate & Health subcommittee.
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