Although he shares some Israeli concerns about the country’s demographic character changing, he would like the country to adopt some system of due process.
“As a rabbi, Israel is one of my highest priorities. I’m a lifelong Zionist,” he said. “It’s my family, so I take more concern in Israel’s policies than in other cases.”
But the Jewish state has the lowest asylum approval rate in the developed world at less than 1 percent, Paley’s coalition charged in a letter.
A decade ago, asylum seekers didn’t generate alarm, but anti-refugee sentiment grew in Israeli government and society as more Africans came to the country, said Siegel. Asylum seekers are often painted as criminals, she added, and seen by some as threats to Israel’s security and Jewish identity.
In 2012, there were riots in South Tel Aviv, where a large number of asylum seekers live. And some Israeli officials have been less-than-friendly in their public statements about the new arrivals.
Former Interior Minister Eli Yishai said that since he could not deport those seeking asylum, he would “lock them up to make their lives miserable,” according to reports. Knesset member Miri Regev called them “a cancer in our body” during an anti-immigrant protest. And at a cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Africans threaten the existence of the Jewish state as well as “the social fabric of society, our national security and our national identity.”
Behind the flight
For their part, Israeli officials accuse the Africans of seeking economic opportunity instead of fleeing oppression. Paley tells a different story.
“Eritreans have been fleeing a very, very dictatorial government in which they can have no freedom at all and they are forced to be in the military for as long as they are needed,” she said. “They are basically treated as slaves by their government.”
Large numbers of people from Eritrea, which is east of Sudan and north of Ethiopia, have been fleeing the country since 2004. About 200,000 fled to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan, according to the HRW report, which cited such conditions as “forced labor, extrajudicial killings, disappearances [and] torture” as behind the exodus.
A large number of Eritreans who made it to Israel, though, were kidnapped by Bedouins and ransomed. Those who escaped such a fate now await adjudication.
“These are victims of human trafficking and victims of torture, but they were not accepted as victims of torture,” said Swedish-Eritrean journalist Meron Estefanos. “They were called infiltrators.”
Those from the genocide-scarred Darfur region of Sudan faced their own oppressive conditions. In 2003, the government partnered with militia groups, accelerating the ethnic cleansing of region’s non-Arab population and instituting a scorched-earth campaign.
“These people are not coming [to Israel] voluntarily,” Siegel said. “They have no other [viable] options for the preservation of their lives.”
By December 2012, around 37,000 Eritreans and 14,000 Sudanese had entered Israel, the HRW report said. But in 2013, very few crossed the Egyptian border into Israel because a steel fence about 16 feet tall was built across it that year.
Advocates point to the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which defines who is eligible for refugee status and the responsibility of member nations, as proof that Israel is in the wrong.
“The Convention lays down basic minimum standards for the treatment of refugees, without prejudice to states granting more favorable treatment,” reads the U.N. text. “Such rights include access to the courts, to primary education, to work and the provision for documentation, including a refugee travel document in passport form.”
Conditions in Eritrea and Sudan likely qualify those fleeing the countries for refugee status, argued Frelick.
“When you look at the countries of origin for these two nationalities, they have profiles that overwhelmingly point in the direction of them being people with strong claims for refugee [status],” he explained. “The very presence [of Sudanese in Israel] makes them liable of up to 10 years imprisonment in Sudan, which means that really 100 percent of the Sudanese in Israel are refugees.”
Israel didn’t examine refugee claims from these two populations until late 2012. All of the Sudanese claims have been rejected, and 99.9 percent of Eritrean claims were rejected, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Two Eritreans were recognized as refugees. In September 2013, the UNHCR, which had previously opposed the government’s amendments to its anti-infiltration law, concluded that Israel lacked the proper procedures and necessary capacity to fairly and promptly process asylum claims.