Israel's Heartbreaking Policy to African Asylum-Seekers

Nation Founded by Refugees Now Turns Its Back on Them

Unwelcome: Few refugees in Israel are granted official refugee status and asylum.
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Unwelcome: Few refugees in Israel are granted official refugee status and asylum.

By Leonard Fein

Published May 04, 2013.
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The collective “protection” currently imposed on Eritreans and Sudanese is, in effect, a deferred deportation order; those who are “protected” by it lack work permits, health insurance and welfare benefits. That means that Israel must somehow deal with the 60,000 asylum seekers in Israel who have survived the trek through Sinai, where many have been repeatedly raped or otherwise abused. Once in Israel, they congregate in poor neighborhoods where two-way resentment festers.

The problem: Israel makes the conferral of basic social rights contingent on at least legal residence. The unprocessed asylum seekers lack legal residence, hence lack access to health and social services, are cut off from all local social service frameworks, are barred from legal employment. This drives very many of them into an existence of indigency and want, renders them dependent on charity and non-profit social assistance organizations. Some women find their way to Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, which reports that many require gynecological attention in the wake of their experience of rape and abuse.

This is not the case in many other countries, where legal status and social benefits are de-linked. While awaiting a ruling on their legal status, asylum seekers in most developed countries enjoy many or all the social rights due a citizen. That is definitively not the case in Israel. After being detained for months or even years, they are given a document that explicitly states that they lack the legal right to work. Lacking the legal right to work, they enter the unregulated job market, where they are often underpaid and overworked and not protected by labor laws and where they are dependent on a network of volunteers for health care.

Plus: The State of Israel does not provide these people homeless shelters, which is particularly problematic for women, since sex is sometimes a precondition for being taken into an apartment.

The bitter irony here is, of course, that we might have expected that a nation shaped by the refugee experience would find humane ways to deal with today’s displaced people. Israel is easy to love — but too often it breaks your heart.


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