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Prisoners of the Promised Land

Nicholas Bishop on the plight of Israel’s African asylum seekers.

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6 May, 2014
By: Nicholas Bishop

As the age old Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to dominate the headlines, the plight of Israel’s more than 53,000 African asylum seekers goes largely unnoticed by the international community and is met with reticence by a domestic population unaware of the reasons for their flight.

Although Israel is a country founded by refugees, the arrival of non-Jewish immigrants is a relatively new phenomenon with significant numbers of Africans only beginning to enter Israel through the Sinai border with Egypt in 2006. The number of asylum seekers in Israel peaked in 2012 at about 57,000.

According to Human Rights Watch, since the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt in 2011 and the subsequent descent into lawlessness of the Sinai Peninsula, countless asylum seekers have been kidnapped by Bedouin human traffickers and held hostage in torture camps awaiting the payment of exorbitant ransoms that their families in Eritrea and Sudan cannot afford to pay.  The conditions in the camps are brutal with frequent reports of rape, murder, sex trafficking, forced labour, and other gross human rights violations.

Reaching a high water mark of over 1,000 arrivals per month during Israel’s construction of a 240-km long steel security fence along the Sinai border in 2012 (completed last year and ironically enough with the use of African labour), the number of Africans entering the country has dropped dramatically to only 18 individuals in the four months since January 2014.

On 10 December, 2013 an amendment to the 1954 Anti-Infiltration Law was passed on the International Day of Human Rights allowing for the arbitrary detention of asylum seekers  in Holot (meaning ‘sands’ in Hebrew)—an ‘open’ detention facility.

Under the amendment, asylum seekers can be held indefinitely for the ‘crime’ of entering Israel illegally despite their entitlement to seek asylum under international humanitarian law. The prison is located 5km from the Egyptian border in the Negev desert and is currently home to approximately 2,300 African asylum seekers.

Asylum seekers are prohibited from learning Hebrew while in the camp, emphasising their situation of being unwelcome in Israel. “We are desperate for education. We sit inside all day queuing up for food, to use the bathroom, and for roll call three times a day. They say it is an open facility but this is clearly a prison. All we ask for is education” pleads Hassan, a Sudanese asylum seeker resident in Israel for 5 years and in Holot for the past two months.

Holot Detention Facility in the Negev Desert, March 28, 2014

Their isolation and indefinite detention is part of the Israeli government’s attempts to “make life as difficult as possible for asylum seekers” with the expectation that they will “voluntarily” return to their home countries where they face the threat of imprisonment or worse.

Of the 2,300 residents in Holot, approximately 70 percent are Sudanese though they constitute only 25 percent of Israel’s 50,000 plus asylum seekers. Interior Ministry officials have determined that when push comes to shove, Sudanese are more likely than Eritreans—who account for nearly 70 percent of all Israeli asylum seekers—to sign onto a voluntary return in the face of indefinite detention.

Yahya, a Sudanese asylum seeker in Holot revealed during an interview with my team that, “It is not that we do not want to go home. We love our countries. The problem for most of us is that we have no home. Our villages were destroyed, our relatives killed and we were forced to flee.”

With space for 4,000 people, Holot’s population will continue to rise unless a May 2014 Supreme Court ruling strikes down the December 2013 amendment which allows indefinite detention of ‘illegal’ Africans despite their potentially valid and, as yet, un-assessed refugee claims.

Working for a living

In Tel Aviv, home to roughly 30,000 African asylum seekers, about one-third are gainfully employed as kitchen staff. Shai Berman, director of The Israeli Restaurants and Bars Association, said that asylum seekers fill “a tremendous shortage” of kitchen workers. “We’re dependent on them,” he said, “there is no local solution for the employment problem in these professions.”

Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers chairwoman Michal Rosin has charged that, “We’re all paying the price: law-abiding employers who are forced to give up essential workers, asylum seekers who find themselves with no income and no ability to pay their rent and residents of south Tel Aviv, who suffer the effects when additional hundreds of helpless asylum seekers are thrown into the streets.” Israel currently pays each asylum seeker 500 shekels (approximately $160CAD) per month while detained in Holot.

Contrastingly, since the 1990s Israel has imported approximately 400,000 non-Jewish foreign guest workers from Thailand, China, and the former Soviet bloc nations, yet demand continues to remain high. Although foreign guest workers are considered as having temporary status some have settled in Israel permanently. And they rarely fall victim to the type of negative rhetoric aimed at African asylum seekers, who are in a much more precarious position.

Thus existential debates over the now static asylum seeking population can be contrasted with a level headed economic argument based on demand for more labour within the Israeli economy. The extension of full socio-economic rights to African asylum seekers which would allow for sustainable livelihoods seems to satisfy both Israel’s international legal obligations while enhancing its image on the world stage but also it would give asylum seekers a taste of the freedom they have journeyed so far to find. in Israel.

Why Israel?

Hundreds of African asylum seekers interviewed by the African Refugee Development Center in Tel Aviv state that Israel is the only Western democratic state in the region, a country founded by refugees after a vicious conflict and genocide, and therefore a country where they can live freely without fear of persecution.

Of the 53,000 African asylum seekers in Israel, 67 percent come from Eritrea and 25 percent from Sudan with a handful of nationals from other countries such as Nigeria and Central African Republic.

Currently nationals of both Eritrea and Sudan have temporary group protection in Israel although the state has refrained from defining the rights of individuals covered by this policy, known in Israel as “collective non-removal.”

In Israel this term is essentially applied to 1) individuals who are part of a group which cannot be returned home because of fear of undue persecution or 2) individuals who are from a recognised refugee producing country for which it is assumed a majority constitute Convention refugees.

Although in other jurisdictions in Europe and North America, asylum claimants are granted social and economic rights in an effort to create a sustainable lifestyle, in Israel those rights are gradually being rescinded as more and more asylum seekers are being sent to Holot.


Eritrea has had one party rule since independence from Ethiopia in 1991, is ranked as one of the 10 poorest countries in the world with no press freedom, freedom of speech, or habeas corpus and a system of indefinite military conscription. According to UNHCR, Eritrea is major producer of refugees with over 300,000 Eritreans currently seeking asylum outside of their country.

Last May, Amnesty International released a report stating that, “The government has systematically used arbitrary arrest and detention without charge to crush all opposition, to silence all dissent, and to punish anyone who refuses to comply with the repressive restrictions it places on people’s lives”.


Sudan has no diplomatic relations with Israel and any person who enters Israel can face criminal prosecution, imprisonment and torture if they return to Sudan.

In 2003, the government began a policy of Arabization of the tribes in the Darfur region. Recognised as genocide by the international community, President Al Bashir is facing an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court (ICC) for atrocities related to the conflict. People from Sudan are escaping gross human rights violations, continuous persecution and mass murder of the civilian population.

Out of roughly 4 million people in Darfur, 2.6million are internally displaced or are seeking asylum in other countries. According to Human Rights Watch, the central government has recently renewed air and ground attacks on civilians in Darfur with at least 200,000 Darfuris internally displaced since the beginning of 2014 alone.

Israel’s uneven response

Although Israel was actively involved in the drafting of the 1951 Refugee Convention—its primary goal was to deal with displaced persons in Europe after the Second World War and the Holocaust—it has failed to enact domestic legislation regulating the Convention and a series of laws dating to the 1950s have been amended to cover this void.

This system terms asylum seekers as, at worst, ‘infiltrators’ or, at best, economic migrants. This rhetoric for many Israelis inspires negative images of ‘the other,’ and has led to high-ranking members of government—including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Minister of the Interior Gideon Sa’ar—to characterise African asylum seekers as an existential threat to the continuity of the Jewish state. These negative and unsubstantiated perceptions continue to inform and prejudice the policy debate in Israel.

In 2008, Israel assumed responsibility for determining refugee status in Israel from the UNHCR. However, rather than establishing a “good faith” system that seeks to provide refugees and asylum seekers with protection under international law, the government sought to limit and minimize its asylum-seeking population. Of approximately 7,000 filed claims, only 16 individuals have achieved status in Israel.

Protest rally opposing Israel’s treatment of African asylum seekers held at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on March 29, 2014

Internationally, asylum seekers from Eritrea had a total recognition rate of over 90 percent with 77 percent of individuals from Sudan recognized in 2012. In Israel, on the other hand, the recognition rate is less than 1 percent. This is significantly below the global average refugee recognition rate (RRR) for governments and the UNHCR refugee status determination procedure that is 38 percent. The recognition rate in the United States, for example, was 66 percent, 28 percent in Germany, 33 percent in the UK, and 45 percent in Canada.

Returning ‘home’?

In early April, Haaretzreported that Israel concluded secret agreements with both Uganda and Rwanda and has been financing flights and providing a one-time payment of $3500USD per adult and $1000USD per child for each asylum seeker who agrees to leave Israel.

Testimony from asylum seekers who were later contacted in Rwanda reveal that upon arrival they were issued a 10-day tourist visa that forbids the holder from working. In Uganda, Sudanese and Eritrean security forces are actively arresting their nationals in the country and forcing them to return home.

Similarly, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has stated that people cannot be considered to be acting of their own free will if the choice they have is between detention and being sent back to their country, where their lives could be in danger. 

UNHCR added, “Asylum seekers say they have lost hope of a better future in Israel and are afraid of being locked up or ordered to stay at Holot for an open-ended period. So despite their fears of what awaits them in their home countries, they agree to sign the ‘voluntary’ return form.”

UNHCR Detention Guidelines say asylum seekers should be detained only “as a last resort” to achieve a specific legal objective and not simply for the purpose of deportation at a later date. Detention is allowable only while initially establishing a person’s identity or on public health grounds.

This leaves asylum seekers bound for Rwanda and Uganda without status or basic protections of their human rights, a status they initially believed they would find in Israel.

A friend in need

As a country that defines its identity around unwavering support for human rights, Canada has a duty to ensure its strategic allies, Israel included, fulfill their international legal obligations under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Replacing the negative imagery of Israel being flooded with African ‘infiltrators’ and acknowledging the plight of asylum seekers’ dangerous journey to Israel and the difficulties they face in daily life would be a starting point.

And given the current momentum within the Canada-Israel bilateral relationship and the potential threat of the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement across Europe and the United States mobilizing against the Palestinian occupation, now may be the time for Israel to put its house in order.

Rather than the conclusion of ‘unofficial’ relocation agreements with third countries like Uganda and Rwanda, Israel can and must do better.

As an ally, Canada can act as a reference point towards building legal expertise on refugee law and on the establishment of a functional refugee status determination process. Israel has an obligation under the 1951 Convention to establish an RSD system in good faith, which is both timely and transparent while guaranteeing asylum seekers’ social and economic rights until a just adjudication of their asylum claim can be processed.

Nicholas Bishop is the Refugee Status Determination Coordinator at the African Refugee Development Center, a community-based, not for profit organisation founded by African asylum seekers and Israelis in Tel Aviv in 2004.

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