Irwin Cotler

The pandemic and asylum seekers: Threat and response

African asylum seekers are more of an asset to Israel than a burden; when the country ties up their funds with the Deposit Law, it penalizes the very people it should be helping
African migrants take part at a protest against the "Deposit Law" in Tel Aviv on June 10, 2017. African asylum seekers protest on Saturday against the "Deposit Law", following which Eritreans and Sudanese are required to deposit fifth percent of their salary. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90
Protesters against the 'Deposit Law,' in Tel Aviv on June 10, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The global coronavirus pandemic has had — and continues to have — a devastating international impact on lives and livelihood with terrifying accounts of sickness and death — the horrors eclipsed in the abstractions of statistics.

Israel is no different, though the reporting here has often gone behind and beyond the drumbeat of statistics to expose the pain and plight of the victims. The exchanges — and the dedication of Israeli medical personnel and volunteers — have put a human face on the tragedy, while revealing the impact on the most vulnerable. This has included the high rates of illness and death in the senior citizens and nursing homes across the country, as well as a not insignificant number of Holocaust survivors.

Indeed, the first recorded death was that of a Holocaust survivor, Aryeh Even, who had been saved by Raoul Wallenberg, a “hero of humanity,”,as Wallenberg has come to be known, and after whom the Raoul Wallenberg Centre — which I chair — has been named. Wallenberg is also an Honorary Citizen of both Canada and Israel.

But there is one vulnerable group whose pain and plight has been largely ignored or marginalized in the reporting and discourse, save for the NGOs that have sought to sound the alarm on their suffering and threat.

I am referring to some 30,000 African asylum seekers — most of whose children have a singular Israeli African identity — and for whom Hebrew is the only language they know and Israel the only home they have ever known.

May I make full disclosure? I have been involved for some 15 years now with the two groups of African asylum seekers — Eritreans and Darfurians — who began to arrive in Canada, as in Israel, post 2005, seeking refuge from the Eritrean dictatorship — sometimes referred to as the “North Korea of Africa” — and the genocide in Darfur.

As Canadian Minister of Justice, I helped establish a refugee determination process for the consideration and adjudication of asylum seeker claims in Canada, and was pleased when in the first years upon their arrival in Israel, they were accorded a temporary protective status. Israel understood that deportation would amount to a violation of its obligations under the International Refugee Convention, which Israel had ratified and the adoption of which it had championed in 1951.

However, as the African arrivals continued to increase, with the numbers rising to a high of 2,000 per month in 2011, the apprehension grew of African asylum seekers as a security and demographic threat. The political and public discourse dramatically changed, with them now characterized as “infiltrators” — “mistanenim” in Hebrew — which was as prejudicial as it was pre-judgmental in effectively predetermining a status which had yet to be determined. That rhetoric began to worsen as the numbers grew, with the “infiltrators” now being increasingly referred to as “criminals” and “predators” — and by government officials, even as a “cancer” — all designed to “make their lives miserable so that they will want to leave,” as one government minister put it at the time. It should be noted that the building of a wall in 2012 put an end to the “infiltration” of asylum seekers.

Regrettably, the situation of asylum seekers was mishandled from the beginning by the dispatch of them to South Tel Aviv, where the infrastructure was already crumbling before their arrival — without an equitable dispersal around the country — and where the increasing “criminalization” of these asylum seekers only served to incite the otherwise neglected Israelis in South Tel Aviv against them.

I myself have made many visits to south Tel Aviv over the years, and I acknowledge and appreciate the pain and fear that besets many of these residents. But this could — and should — have been avoided by not sending the asylum seekers to South Tel Aviv to begin with; by not inciting against them; by instituting a proper refugee determination process; and by respecting — rather than restricting — their right to access employment and social services, until such time as their asylum requests could be properly processed, which still has yet to be done.

But the notion that the asylum seekers are a security and demographic threat was seriously embedded in the public mindset during this period, and still remains. So much for the background of the arbitrary and discriminatory policy regarding the African asylum seekers.

As it happens, the more recently enacted “Deposit Law” (anchored in the prejudicial context I have described above), and which was discriminatory and punitive in its origins, is now particularly shameful — and even dangerous — given the pandemic. Simply put, the 30,000 Eritrean and Darfurian men and women are mostly unemployed due to the pandemic, at the risk of starvation and illness, and even out of desperation, could turn to crime.

Moreover, unlike Israeli citizens or permanent residents, these asylum seekers are ineligible for unemployment insurance, welfare, or even national health insurance. In a word, there is no social safety net of any kind, when it is most desperately needed.

As well, many do not have any savings due to their otherwise low income, and their social service and other expenses. Moreover, for the last several years, under the Israeli “Deposit Law,” employers have been required to deduct 20 percent from their salaries into special “deposit accounts,” which the asylum seekers can only access upon departing Israel or gaining official refugee status.

Regrettably, the Israeli refugee determination process makes it very difficult to even make an application, it takes an inordinate amount of time to get a response, and when the application is responded to, it is invariably negative.

Accordingly, less than half of the asylum seekers have ever been able to present their claims since the refugee determination process began (post 2011). Of the some 16,000 claims presented, only about one-third of them have actually been reviewed, and only a minuscule number have been recognized as refugees, after a long and protracted battle in the courts.

In a word, the Israeli acceptance rate for asylum seekers represents the lowest number of asylum seekers recognized in the Western world. For example, 97% of the same cohort of asylum seekers in Canada (Eritrean and Darfurian) received refugee status. The Israeli overall acceptance rate for the same cohort is 0.056%. That is simply discriminatory on its face.

I am not saying that the Israeli acceptance rate should be anywhere near 97%. I am only saying that there should be a fair, just and efficient process in which the applications can be made, considered and adjudicated within a reasonable period of time, and a determination made.

Asylum seekers and their lawyers in Israel have been calling on the government to cancel the “Deposit Law” and release all funds held, at least temporarily, in order to prevent and protect against a growing humanitarian emergency in the asylum seeker community, which will not only endanger them, but pose a risk to the communities in which they live.

Recently, centrist Israeli parliamentarians have been advancing emergency temporary legislation to allow these unemployed asylum seekers to withdraw up to 2,700 NIS ($750 US) per month from their deposit accounts until the current crisis passes.

Last week, following pressure from certain politicians and activists, the proposed bill has been amended in a manner which undermines its objective, and which will make it exceedingly difficult for asylum seekers to even access the funds, while the low amounts proposed would not help ease the humanitarian crisis.

This proposed legislation is expected to be voted upon shortly. My hope is that the government of Israel will cancel the punitive “Deposit Law” in its entirety and release all funds held to the asylum seekers; or at the very least, release the portion referenced above, as minimal as it is. As well, these asylum seekers should be granted access to the national insurance system and national health insurance law as a social safety net.

Finally, it should be appreciated that the African asylum seeker should be seen as more of an asset than a burden, one who can contribute to Israeli government and society in matters of diplomacy and the economy, let alone culture and the arts, as well as a bridgehead to Africa.

As I wrote two years ago, the Knesset and government should alter the prejudicial discourse, cease and desist from any incitement, and put in place a proper refugee status determination system as befits a Jewish and democratic state like Israel, and even more so, as befits a country whose ethics and ethos effectively command us to respect the stranger, referenced some 36 times in the Bible — let alone not to persecute them.

About the Author
Irwin Cotler is Emeritus Professor of Law at McGill University, International Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights, former Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of Canada, longtime parliamentarian, and International Legal Counsel to Prisoners of Conscience. He is Canada’s first Special Envoy for Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism.
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