African migrants protesting on Wednesday, June 25, 2012, in the Diamond District of Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan, Israel.
Although these migrants have not been recognized as refugees by the Israeli government, UNHCR officials describe them as such and say most cannot safely return home for fear of genocide, ethnic violence and political persecution. © Idit Keren
African migrants protesting on Wednesday, June 25, 2012, in the Diamond District of Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan, Israel.
Last updated: May 6, 2013

Israel still ignoring African refugees

Banner Icon The issue of African migrants in Israel was a hot topic this summer. But where did it go? Israel-based journalist Leigh Cuen takes a deeper look at the situation.

Israel has halted the influx of African migrants entering the country by way of the Sinai. Public attention has shifted back to the conflict with Palestinians and the upcoming Israeli elections in January. But there are still around 55,000 potential asylum-seekers from Africa living in Israel; and there are currently no efforts to grant them an immediate legal status to work and sustain themselves. They are not considered immigrants, tourists or refugees by the government. Their official status is ‘conditional release.’  

According to a new procedure from the Israeli Immigration and Population Authority for dealing with stateless people, for the first time, a stateless person may ask the Interior Ministry for recognition as lacking citizenship in Israel or any other country, without being arrested or jailed.

But the protocol is insufficient and does not comply with the international Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, which Israel ratified in 1958. It still leaves stateless persons without any social rights. This new procedure is not a path to permanent residence; and a stateless person can have to wait a year after applying before receiving permission to work in Israel.

They live in limbo: their requests for official refugee status are stalled, but they are protected by UN law from being deported. They survive through a combination of assistance from nonprofit organizations and under-the-table work. 

According to the Population, Immigration and Borders Authority, over 1,000 Eritrean and Sudanese migrants have voluntarily left Israel over the past few months. Potential asylum-seekers from South Sudan and Cote d’Ivoire, which make up a very small minority of the African migrants, were given an ultimatum to leave the country in return for 1,000 Euros, or face imprisonment for up to three years. Interior Minister Eli Yishai has publicly stated his intention to arrest 15,000 African migrants. According to a statement from the Migrant Workers' Hotline in early November, an estimated 2,000 potential asylum-seekers are detained in the Saharonim Prison, 800 at Ktzi'ot Prison facility and 500 are held at Givon Prison. 

“A few families we know were put in jail because they refused to sign the ‘leaving willfully act.’ If you won’t be voluntarily deported they throw you in jail,” said Eyal Feder, manager of the Garden Library in Tel Aviv, a nonprofit organization that has served the African refugee community since 2009.

Israel is continuing to build massive detention centers in southern Israel, without addressing the need to evaluate individual asylum claims according to international law. 

“Families are broken up, children detained with their mothers while fathers are detained separately,” said Tally Kritzman-Amir, assistant professor of law at the Academic Center of Law and Business in Tel Aviv. “We honestly don’t know what they do when there is a father but no mother, which is sometimes the case.” In 2013 she will teach a class at Tel Aviv University on law and ethics related to migration and refugees as part of the new migration studies graduate program.

According to a report by the Hotline for Migrant Workers, the Israeli Interior Ministry rejects over 99.9 percent of asylum applications. “We prefer to check the asylum applications of those that can be deported,” said Population and Migration Authority spokeswoman Sabin Hadad.

“Because it doesn’t matter for those from Eritrea and North Sudan. Either way they will still be in Israel. When the UN will allow us to deport them, then we will check every application,” she said.

William Tall, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Israel, estimates that 85 percent of the refugee population is working-age males. But he doesn’t know for sure. 

“The Ministry of Interior doesn’t want to share information because they don’t want to acknowledge them or create sympathy for them,” he said.

The UNHCR estimates that asylum-seeking parents have given birth to between 500 and 600 children in Israel. That may be a conservative estimate. Recent reports from Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) show a dramatic increase in female arrivals over the past year. 

“Hundreds of women were kidnapped, trafficked through the Sinai against their will, sexually abused along the way, and then released along the Israeli border after their families paid their ransoms,” said Tall. 

And national policy continues to ostracize this population. In July, the Ministry of Justice published a bill that would restrict the ability of African migrants to send money out of Israel. “The only legislation we see being advanced are aimed at deportation and restriction, the deprivation of rights,” said Yonatan Berrman, head of the Clinic for Migrants’ Rights. 

“There is no legislation being written about defining even what a refugee is and who is responsible for assessing them,” said Kritzman-Amir. 

She said there are plans to make the detention facility in southern Israel to the largest facility of its kind in the world. “It’s hard to determine if they are economic migrants or refugees if you don’t ask,” argued Kritzman-Amir.

“They have a lot of faith in the wall,” said Tall, referring to the barrier being built along the Egyptian border. He theorized that after it is completed, the Israeli government might look to domestic issues.

“I am less optimistic,” said Kritzman-Amir. “I think the government will continue to come up with creative ways to avoid helping these people.”

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Your Middle East.

Leigh Cuen
Leigh is a freelance journalist from California, currently living in Israel. She has written for Women's eNews, the San Francisco Public Press, the Palestinian News Network, J. weekly newspaper, World Literature Today, the Earth Island Journal and many others. Follow her work at
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