HIAS works around the world to protect refugees who have been forced to flee their homelands because of who they are, including ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities. For more than 130 years, HIAS has assisted more than 4.5 million refugees rebuild their lives in safety and dignity. Today HIAS works across 14 countries and five continents.
HIAS Israel assists olim (Jewish immigrants), works with civil society organizations and governmental bodies to improve the refugee asylum system and represents asylum seekers through legal proceedings.
Activity in Israel
HIAS has been working in Israel since before the establishment of the State. HIAS Israel’s goal is to be a professional authority in the field of immigration and to address the challenges facing new immigrants and asylum seekers. Our programs:
Training and Legal Aid
After several years of providing professional instruction to lawyers and organizations in the field of Refugee Law, and participating in the Interior Ministry’s training unit of the RSD (Refugee Status Determination) for handling asylum seekers, in 2014 we launched a Pro-Bono Legal Aid program to guide and represent asylum seekers in Israel. We train and mentor attorneys and law students while they represent refugees though out their legal proceedings.
Olim (Jewish immigrants)
For the past three decades HIAS Israel has worked together with the Jewish Agency and the HIAS office in New York City, to help new Jewish immigrants by providing academic scholarships. Recipients are chosen according to their academic achievements, financial needs and contributions to the community.
Activity Around the World
HIAS currently operates across five continents and 14 countries. HIAS focuses on promoting the rights of refugees through legal aid and intervention, assisting refugees to overcome trauma so they can begin anew through psychological care and on providing avenues for self-sufficiency through livelihood training.
For more information on HIAS work around the world visit: Www.hias.org.
The History of HIAS
HIAS was founded in 1881, originally to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe and other places around the world. Out of a little shop in Manhattan, a group of American Jews organized to provide much-needed comfort and aid to thousands of Jews fleeing waves of anti-Semitic riots. They formed the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to provide meals, transportation and jobs for the new arrivals to Manhattan. HIAS established a bureau on Ellis Island in 1904 providing translation services, guiding immigrants through medical screenings, arguing before the Boards of Special Enquiry to prevent deportations, and obtaining bonds to guarantee employable status.
In 1921 HIAS purchased the Astor Library Building in Lafayette Street, Manhattan and opened a shelter, a synagogue, classes, professional training, playground and a kosher soup kitchen, that served thousands of Jewish immigrants each week.
Over the next 80 years HIAS assisted millions of Jews fleeing persecution. To read more about this history go to: www.hias.org
Starting in the 2000s, HIAS expanded to work with refugees from all religions. Today, HIAS continues to work with the most vulnerable refugees of all faiths and ethnicities from all over the world.
Asylum Seekers In Israel
Legal Framework and Protection Context – August 2020
Israel is currently home to approximately 31,000 asylum seekers from Africa, who entered the country through the Sinai desert between the years 2005-2012. 20% of them arrived from Sudan (mainly from Darfur) and 72% from Eritrea. Many of these asylum seekers have fled genocide, war, persecution, and slavery to dictatorial regimes. In 2012 Israel completed the construction of a secure fence along the border with Egypt, virtually ending the influx of migrants.
Israeli policy makers have struggled to cope effectively with the challenge of the tens of thousands of asylum seekers already residing in Israel. The State has pursued a number of policies, though has yet to find one that is sustainable, effective, and respectful of the needs and rights of asylum seekers.
Israel was among the countries that initiated and drafted the 1951 Refugee Convention. It is also one of the first signatories of the Convention and the 1967 Protocol. Although it has not incorporated the Convention into its domestic laws, it has declared in court that it is bound by its principles.
Asylum Procedure: Until 2013, the Ministry of Interior ("MOI") did not allow Sudanese and Eritreans to file individual asylum claims, reasoning that they were protected under the “temporary group protection” afforded to nationals of their countries which prevents their deportation.
Since 2013, when MOI started adjudicating these claims, only thirteen Eritreans have been granted refugee status, and only two Sudanese. The overall acceptance rate is less than 0.1%. In other developed countries, however, the recognition rate of Eritreans is 90%, and of Sudanese is 60%.
Eritrean asylum claims were regularly rejected based on a legal opinion by the MOI’s legal advisor, stating that military draft evaders and deserters from Eritrea do not meet the definition of a refugee under the 1951 Refugee Convention. This position stands in stark contrast with virtually all other developed nations, whose refugee adjudication bodies frequently recognize defectors from the Eritrean Army as refugees. Service in the Eritrean Army involves forced labor for the benefit of the regime and the length of the service is not restricted; women soldiers, whose service is also mandatory, are commonly subject to sexual and gender-based violence. Defectors from the army are considered traitors and those who are caught after defecting are detained and tortured in prisons characterized by life-threatening conditions. Following legal proceedings, on November 2019 the MOI announced that all Eritreans’ asylum cases will be re-examined. Since then, only a few cases were examined.
Sudanese from Darfur, from the Blue Nile and from the Nuba Mountains areas, do not receive any decision on their asylum claims since they began filing their requests on 2013. Two cases in the hight court and hundreds fled by HIAS to the appeals tribunal question this “freeze” policy. While the cases are still pending, the state announced that it would provide A5 status (residency permit, which is the type of status refugees receive in any event) to 800 of these Sudanese asylum seekers who are above 40 year old, due to “humanitarian” reasons. Read more in our report: The numbers speak for themselves: The Israeli asylum process.
The "Anti-Infiltration" Law: In 2012, the Knesset passed Amendment No. 3 to the Prevention of Infiltration Law of 1954 (or “Anti-Infiltration Law”), defining anyone entering Israel irregularly as an “infiltrator”. Since the definition does not question the motivation for coming, it also applies to persons seeking asylum. In September 2013, the Israeli High Court of Justice invalidated the provision in this amendment which allowed the State to detain "infiltrators" for three years, finding that it violated Israel’s Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty. In response, the Knesset passed Amendment No. 4, which shortened the detention period but allowed for indefinite confinement in an “open” facility called Holot (more below). Following another petition, the Court ruled that indefinite holding in an "open facility" is unconstitutional, and a year later ruled that a period of 20 months in such a holding facility is unconstitutional as well. Ultimately, asylum seekers could be held in Holot for 12 months, and this policy was implemented until February 2017, at which point the State shut down Holot. The Holot facility had cost the state approximately 94 million USD to build, and another estimated at 28 million USD per year to run. The state closed Holot when it began implementation its new policy of expulsion.
Status and Employment Policy: Asylum seekers are given a “Conditional Release Permit” (“2(a)(5) permit”), which grants them the right not to be deported until conditions allow. This permit does not allow them to work or have access to welfare or medical services, but the state declared in court that it would not enforce the prohibition on unauthorized employment. Therefore, asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea who hold this permit can de facto work in Israel, mostly in construction, cleaning and restaurant work, though some receive permits which restrict where they can live and work.
The MOI makes it difficult to renew these permits – limiting the locations and the opening hours of the relevant offices, demanding to present pay slips and lease agreements for apartments made in their name, among other restrictive steps. This has led to the arrest of dozens of asylum seekers who had been left without a valid visa. In 2013, the Knesset approved a law barring “infiltrators” from transferring money abroad. Furthermore, a new amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law – which were implemented as of May 1st, 2017 – required “infiltrators” to pay a monthly deposit of 20% of their salary, retrievable only when leaving the country. Employers must deposit an additional 16% of the salary amount, making it more costly to employ asylum seekers. Human Rights NGOs filed a petition to the High Court of Justice challenging this amendment in the law and HIAS filed an amicus brief representing 11 Israeli women and children’s organizations, in support of the petition. On April 2020 the court struck down the law, except for the 16% paid by the employer.
Deportation to Third Countries: 3,246 African asylum-seekers left Israel during 2016. Approximately 4000 left during 2017, 2700 left during 2018 and 2700 left during 2019. Many of them left due to the pressures of detention, lack of status and a proper work permit, and the heavy bureaucratic obstacles associated with frequent visa renewal. Human Rights NGOs reported that some Sudanese who returned to Sudan were later ill-treated by the Sudanese authorities in one way or another, and a number died from disease. Most have left not towards repatriation or to resettlement countries offering durable solutions, but rather to “third countries” – Uganda and Rwanda, and Israel's transfer agreements with Uganda and Rwanda have remained covert. Testimonies collected by NGOs and academics in August 2015 and again in January 2018 indicate that those sent to third countries do not have means of subsistence, do not receive local documentation which allows them to legally stay and are often exposed to detention and deportation in these countries. Current transfer arrangements offer no enforceable assurances regarding admissions, access to full and fair asylum procedures and protection from refoulement.
In March 2015, the Israeli Ministry of Interior announced that Eritrean and Sudanese migrants who do not have pending asylum claims and who do not agree to leave "voluntarily" to a third country will face indefinite imprisonment. A coalition of several NGOs filed a petition to the Beer Sheva District Court, asking for an order that would declare the detention of those refusing to be sent to third countries illegal. The appeal was rejected, and the appellants appealed to the Supreme Court. In August 2017, the Supreme Court issued its judgement, finding that in principle, there are no legal grounds to prevent the transfer of asylum seekers to a third country. The court concluded that if the State proceeds, it must ensure that the third country is upholding its agreed-upon responsibilities. Importantly, the Supreme Court ruled that if asylum seekers are to be imprisoned indefinitely so long as they do not consent to departure, any cooperation with departure cannot be considered voluntary. According to the ruling, the State can only imprison those who do not consent to depart Israel for up to 60 days. On January 1st 2018 Israel declared that it has amended the agreement with at least one African country – known unofficially to be Rwanda – so that voluntariness on the part of the asylum seekers would no longer necessary and that asylum seekers will be forcibly transferred to third countries. MOI began handing asylum seekers who arrived to renew their visas, and who did not fall into a stated exclusion, notifications that they were to depart Israel within 60 days, or else face imprisonment. This policy was the first to cause a significant portion of the Israeli public to rally behind asylum seekers. There were mass protests against deportation, and HIAS and other organizations were able to gather further support for various initiatives to stop the deportation. HIAS had volunteers accompany asylum seekers to the short hearings in which they could challenge deportation, and in about half of the cases, there were able to persuade the MOI official not to issue a deportation decision. HIAS also filed legal petitions for those who had received deportation decisions. In addition to individual representation, activists filed two petitions with the High Court of Justice against deportation. State officials were ultimately forced to admit that the agreement with Rwanda had collapsed and that the other “third country” (unofficially known to be Uganda) had not agreed to take asylum seekers arriving on an involuntary basis. Thus the government was forced to suspend the deportation policy and to release those who had already been imprisoned.
Dispersal Throughout the Country
Upon the government’s announcement of the intended expulsion, the Kibbutz movement took the initiative to relocate particularly vulnerable asylum seekers from congested south Tel Aviv to Kibbutzim throughout Israel. This project has continued even once the deportation was halted, and there are currently waiting lists for this option
When the government announced that it was forced to halt the deportation plan, it also announced that it had reached an agreement with the UNHCR whereby almost half the population of asylum seekers would be resettled to countries where they would have a durable solution, and Israel would provide durable status to 16,000 of those remaining. Later that day, under pressure by Israeli activists in South Tel Aviv opposed to integration, PM Netanyahu said he would reexamine the deal, and the next day he announced that it was suspended.
Other potential plans to integrate the population include a plan for dispersion and rehabilitation of south Tel Aviv introduced by 64 leading Israeli businessmen during May 2018.
In September 2016, following a protest against designating a school in Tel Aviv to serve asylum seekers, the Prime Minister's office stated that "Following the policies of Prime Minister Netanyahu, more than 20,000 infiltrators have voluntarily left Israel in the past 10 years. The prime minister will continue [to pursue] this policy.” Most recently, Prime Minister Netanyahu has stated that his goal is to remove the rest of the asylum seekers from Israel, and that in order to do so, his government will strengthen enforcement mechanisms and allocate the necessary budgetary and human resources to realize this goal.
At present time, the main method to pressure asylum seekers to leave Israel is the deposit law. This method is quite effective as asylum seekers reach new levels of destitution and despair. At the same time, there has been a significant increase in the number of asylum seekers obtaining a durable status here in Israel, as well as the beginning of a movement toward relocation and integration in the country (propelled by NGOs and individuals rather than government policy which shows no sign of changing). Many of the African asylum seekers have been in Israel for several years and speak fluent Hebrew. Their children are particularly able to integrate.
Israel has been in a constant tug-of-war between its obligations under the UN Refugee Convention and the challenges of being the only democratic country in the region that has a land border with Africa. With the border fence in place and no newcomers entering the country, this could be an opportunity for Israel to meet its international obligations and live up to the standards of refugee protection that it helped to create.
For more information and personal stories of asylum seekers in Israel, see our projects "untold stories of success".