I have a high emotional tolerance for disturbing stories of Israel’s shortcomings. But few topics so abjectly horrified me as this detailed report about Israel’s treatment of African asylum seekers. Racism against non-Jews in Israel has long angered me and politicians’ stoking it into recent violence did shock me. But this report broke my battle-hardened heart open again. Since the Tel Aviv riots, conservative hasbaraists and politicians have tried to portray Israel as a country willing to accept a reasonable number of refugees but drowning in illegal entrants. The truth is painfully to the contrary.
Israeli NGO Hotline for Migrant Workers produced this analysis earlier this year of the Interior Ministry’s department for refugee protection. The report, Until Our Hearts Are Completely Hardened, details in clinical dispassion how the Interior Ministry has corrupted a process intended to protect refugees’ lives and runs it like an interrogation. It created a system that bulk rejects even the most dire cases — all but eight of 4,178 asylum applicants since it began operating the past two years.
In the report’s own words, Israel’s process is “worrying,” “patently unreasonable,” and a “manufacturing of contradictions.” It’s staff are engaged in “unprofessional and problematic work,” “absurd,” a “failure in deduction powers,” and “inappropriate.” It creates a situation that is “bleak,” “biased,” and “unfair and degrading.” The report concludes:
When comparing this data with data in other countries, we cannot but reach the conclusion that something has gone terribly wrong with the Israeli asylum system, and that it is not qualified to identify those people who face the threat of persecution in their countries of origin…Without these [recommended changes], Israel’s asylum system will continue to send people back to their death.
What emerges is a picture of a purposefully biased, cruel, and farcical system that rejects asylum seekers at a rate higher than 99.9% — the worst in the Western world.
The Interior Ministry’s Corruption of International Standards
The Refugee Status Determination process designed by UNHCR is simple in its purpose: to determine if someone meets the criteria in a responsible manner, considering applicants’ lives may be at stake. It is used by the US, Canada, the EU, and the rest of the developed world. Asylum seekers apply to the host state for protection and the state assesses their circumstances in light of five protected refugee classes.
An initial interview precedes longer comprehensive interviews, where the former determines basic information like nationality and the latter ascertains more complicated matters like credibility. A “fast track” approval is made possible in extremely dire situations. If an application is denied, the applicant is of course informed why, so they can correct mistakes or explain unique circumstances. (Applicants obviously can leave their home countries under extreme conditions, without records or clarity of memory.) Throughout, the state is required to give the applicant “the benefit of the doubt,” within reason. Accepted applications should confer a work visa and whatever rights and obligations come with the host state’s residency.
What the Interior Ministry did with that process is shameful. In effect, Israel’s authorities riddled every stage with holes where applicants can be rejected without appeal. Applicants from Eritrea and Sudan are rejected without appeal, some 88% of all applicants. Applicants who’ve been in Israel over a year are automatically rejected without appeal. Applicants can be rejected without appeal for any reason. Reasons which are kept secret. Furthermore, rejection letters state that deportation could occur between 72 hours and a week later, too swiftly for filling an appeal even when it’s permitted to do so. The process doesn’t ascertain whether applicants need protection from closely related matters covered in other humanitarian covenants, such as risk of torture or famine. And for those granted refugee status or vaguely-worded “temporary protection,” work permissions are not included, subjecting them to instant poverty.
The Department of “Manufactured Contradictions”
To say this process is flawed is akin to slashing someone’s tires and calling it a flawed car. But how the Interior Ministry is running this corrupted process is horrifying. Twice I had to put the report down and take a walk while reading how applicants are treated.
It is no secret apparently that staff in the two relevant Interior Ministry offices refer to themselves as “interrogators” and approach their humanitarian work like they would a ticking-bomb terrorist suspect. Despite the delicate state that survivors of political instability, violence, famine and possibly genocide may be in, the interviewers view the aim of the RSD process as uncovering liars through aggressive and inappropriate questioning.
The report offers the interview of A., an asylum seeker from Ethiopia, as typical:
At the outset of the interview, and before he was even asked a single question, one of the interviewers made it clear to him that he is evidently lying, and that in his own interest he should confess immediately so as not to waste everyone’s time. During the interview a second interviewer joined in and both interviewers took turns asking questions. Considerable parts of the interview were conducted in raised voices, with the interviewers accusing A. repeatedly of lying and pressing him to admit it.
Interviewers charged with understanding sophisticated matters demand yes/no answers:
For example, R., an asylum seeker persecuted because of his brother’s political activities, was presented with a press article, which stated that his brother, a well-known political figure, had previously worked in a newspaper that the R. did not know. The interviewer presented R. with three possibilities: ”Either your brother is lying, you are lying, or I am lying. So you’re saying that I’m lying. Yes, or no?” R.’ s attempts to explain why he was not familiar with his
brother’s place of employment before he had been born were all cut short by the interviewer, who insisted on receiving only a “yes” or “no” answer.
But let us put aside simple human dignity for a moment: sorting true refugees from ineligible applicants is indeed a primary goal of the asylum process. In sorting false claims from truthful ones, the United States, Canadian and Australian asylum law apply acknowledged psychological research that credibility cannot be determined by matters not at the core of the asylum claim. It cannot be expected that matters “not at the core” of the asylum claim will be consistent. (Mistranslation is also not cause for rejection, an occurence criticized at length in the report.)
Yet interviewers overwhelming reject applicants without appeal for minor lapses in memory:
For example, the assessment of the RSD unit in the case of A. shows that he was found not to be credible because he could not remember the price of the bus fare from a village in West Sudan to Sudan’s Capital, Khartoum, a trip he made only once in his lifetime, and he could also not recall the colour of the bus in which he rode.
Interviewers also reject applicants for trivial contradictions in memories, even under incredible circumstances:
In the course of the interview the asylum seeker described an event where he was held in custody, interrogated and tortured. When asked by the interviewer how many persons interrogated him, the asylum seeker replied that since he was blindfolded during the interrogation he cannot give an accurate answer, but based on the voices he heard during the interrogation, he assumes there were 5 or 6 interrogators. The RSD interviewer replied: “In a previous interview you claimed that it was 6 or 7 persons. How do you explain this contradiction?”
Outrageous. The report also delves into unqualified speculation on the part of the interviewers. Successive court appeals by human rights lawyers revealed the reasons for rejection involve ignorant speculation — excuses, really, to deny asylum. (That files are shrouded in secrecy though almost no applicants incur classified knowledge is extensively berated in the report.)
Some rejection reasons are unqualified in specialized knowledge, like medicine:
For instance, B. was found not to be credible because he told the interviewer that he sprained or broke his leg in prison but did not receive medical care, and later said that he worked as a waiter two years after the incident. The conclusion of the RSD unit, without conducting any medical examination or requesting an expert medical opinion, was that it cannot be possible that B. sprained or broke his leg and worked in a physically demanding job two years later, without having received medical care.
Other speculations are specious:
Another example of speculations on which the Ministry of Interior bases its assessments can be seen in the case of L., a national of Columbia. L. testified that one of his closest friends, who had been living in his house, had been engaged in illegal activities in the service of the paramilitary groups, a fact which only became known to L. ex post facto. The RSD unit concluded that “it does not make sense” that L. knew nothing of his friend’s actions, and therefore his claims were found to be unreliable.
More speculations are so vastly uneducated that it reveals grave doubt about simple common sense:
M., an asylum seeker from Eritrea…was presented with a photo of a remote dirt road and a photo of a wall with an adjacent car that, according to the interviewer, were taken in her village. “This is a very famous road”, she was told regarding the dirt road. M. could not name the places that appeared in the photos and was therefore found to be not credible and not a national of Eritrea. Later, while researching various internet websites, these two photos were traced on the website of a tourist who had visited the area.
Others are so unfathomably stupid and ignorant as to be truly dumbfounding. In this case, the RSD Unit presented two pieces of internet evidence (!) that a given applicant from Morocco was not at risk of persecution for his sexual orientation as a homosexual:
The first source was a webpage of what was presented by the unit as an “organisation for the
rights of homosexuals in Morocco” named “Basama”. The conclusion of the RSD unit was
that the very existence of such a group testifies to the fact that homosexuals are not
persecuted. However, an investigation conducted by the applicant’s legal representative and
an expert opinion she received, point to the fact that the said “Basma” group is nothing more
than a webpage supporting homosexuals and not an organisation.
The second source of information that the RSD unit based its decision on in this case was a press article about the performance of the singer Elton John in Morocco. The appearance of a well know homosexual singer, so deduced the RSD unit, points to the fact that homosexuals are not persecuted.
Un-fucking-beleivable. There are over a dozen more testimonies in the report.
Additionally, the Interior Ministry employs only one person with the research of countries of origin. Migrant Workers Hotline attests that all of the research provided by this individual “reveal unprofessional and problematic work, at best, and biased research, at worse.” His or her opinions uniformly discount authoritative sources like the US State Department and the UNHCR in determining danger in applicants’ home countries while cherry picking the scant opposing views.
The Production Line of Rejection
Further, the Migrant Workers Hotline, Tel Aviv University’s Refugee Rights Legal Clinic, and other human rights advocates uncovered a “production line” of rejection letters. Letters are clearly copied and pasted, containing both typos and substantive errors that has led Israeli judges to comment. Rejections have been sent for individuals who never applied for asylum and by ministry officers who were away on maternity leave.
The conclusion is that “not a single asylum seeker has been found credible by the RSD unit.” Aggressive, trivial, unreasonable interrogations with the presumption of lying inevitably produce scared, nervous and inconsistent applicants. Migrant Workers Hotline attests to hundreds of testimonies similarly rejected (did I mention without appeal?) in an expertise it calls “the manufacturing of contradictions.”
In 2009, the department considered 812 asylum applications, recognizing two (that’s 0.024% acceptance). In 2010, it considered 3,366, recognizing six (0.17% acceptance). Of those eight accepted, seven were evaluated by UNHCR and not by the Interior Ministry’s staff. Human rights legal clinics have exerted huge energy in litigating their way to a few pyrric victories. Compared to other western and developed countries Israel is also wildly out of step, where acceptance rates range between 5% (Sweden) and 27% (the United States). Regarding specifically African refugees, as the vast majority of such applicants in Israel, the acceptance rates are nearly 90%. And yet Israel is less than a quarter of 1%.
A Nation of Refugees Cannot Reject Every Refugee
I cannot even continue with the other matters that I’ve given but cursory mention here. Notably, before a single applicant had been assessed by the newly-created department in 2009, its top officials — like its unit director, Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Prime Minister Netanyahu — were already telling the public that investigation revealed 99% of Africans were “economic migrants.” No such number existed then, nor now. Maybe I’m naive to be stunned by such bold-faced, flagrant lying by the very people in charge of the process.
This report is scathing and it’s been out for half a year already, unnoticed by nearly all of us. So what is the purpose of surfacing this information? My purpose is not fomenting popular disgust with the State of Israel. But what are we all supposed to do with this information now?
Let me lend a historical comparison. A few years ago, investigative reports revealed the Jewish state had become a hub of human trafficking in the sex slave trade. The US State Department nearly dropped Israel from its list of good countries. Israel quickly implemented long-standing recommendations advised by Israeli human rights NGOs. Israel’s role in the slave trade decreased and thus recovered its good name. Similar to today, it is civil society in Israel and internationally — including online communities like ours — who must play central roles in salvaging the Jewish people’s sacred values from politicians unwilling to do so.
If you’ve not already signed Dan Sieradski’s petition to Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu calling for the inciters to be fired, the process revamped, and asylum granted please do so now.
More resources on Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Israel
Stand up for Israel’s African Refugees by ProgressiveJews.org
Xenophobic violence against asylum seekers in Israel by Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, June 2012
Until Our Hearts Are Completely Hardened: Asylum Procedures in Israel by Yonatan Berman for the Hotline for Migrant Workers, January 2012
Managing Global Migration: A Strategy for Immigration Policy in Israel by Shlomo Avineri, Liav Orgad, and Amnon Rubenstein, Jerusalem: The Melitzah Center, January 2010
Migrant Workers and Victims of Trafficking: The Government’s Policy and the Activity of the Immigration Authority by Gilad Natan, Jerusalem: Knesset Research and Information Center, October 2009
African Immigrants to Israel: Debt, Employment and Remittances by Rebecca Furst-Nichols and Karen Jacobsen for the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, January 2011