African migrants are queuing for hours in miserable conditions to submit their asylum applications to Tel Aviv’s RSD [Refugee Status Determination] unit in Israel – but are never allowed inside the building, much less the opportunity to speak with an immigration advisor. People without legal status in the country risk deportation or incarceration, even though some of them have been resident in Israel for years, and have jobs and families. Rights groups say that the situation hasn't improved since 2016.
This week the Israeli government announced a new plan to evict African migrants from the country: it will offer each person 3,500 US dollars [about 2,900 euros] and a plane ticket to return to their country of origin or go to a “third country”, usually Rwanda or Uganda. Migrants without valid documents have until the end of March to accept the offer. After March, the amount of money offered will decrease, and people without a legal status could face indefinite imprisonment.
However, rights groups in the country argue that many African migrants are denied the opportunity to apply for asylum.
The country’s immigration law states that an application for political asylum has to be submitted to the RSD unit within a year from the date of entry, but our Observer tells us that some migrants live in the country for years without receiving a response for an asylum claim submitted when they arrived. Less than one per cent of asylum applications in Israel are accepted – the lowest rate in the Western world.
A backlog of applications at the RSD unit in Tel Aviv means that new applications cannot be handed in. Anxious people queue day and night in long lines that wind around the building on Shalma Road, hoping to be the first in when the office opens in order to submit applications and avoid being deported to a country they may not know. Rights groups say that the RSD unit is deliberately ignoring legitimate claims and pursuing an anti-African policy.
“People queue for days without a bathroom, without food”
Helen Kidane is an Eritrean who has lived in Israel since 2011. She is the director of the Eritrean Women’s Community Center in Tel Aviv, helping other Eritrean women with the immigration process.
When you go to the immigration office, they tell you to come back tomorrow. Sometimes they don’t accept anybody, or only five people from a queue of 250. People are coming from everywhere to try and submit their forms. People queue for days. There is no bathroom; there is no food; you cannot move and leave your space in the queue. People are scared to ask questions. It is a horrible experience. The guards are shouting at them. These are people who don’t have a visa standing in front of guards – they’re not free to act how they want or say what they want.
A photo sent by our Observer that shows the queue outside the office. The photo was taken at 9.25pm on November 11th, a Saturday evening. The office is closed on Saturdays and reopens on Sunday mornings. These people planned to wait all night in the cold.
I have tried submitting my form several times. It feels pointless. I know they will reject me because I’m from Eritrea. The process is meaningless.
“It’s racism against Africans”
Since 2015, they have been accepting a lot of people from Russia or Ukraine: people who don’t speak Hebrew, who are not Arab or Jewish. I consider it racism against African people. [Editor's note: The idea that Ukrainians were allowed to enter the office has been corroborated by other witnesses. However, we were not able to find a figure for how many Ukrainian/Russian/Georgian people's asylum applications have actually been accepted in Israel.]
My husband is also Eritrean, and works here. He applied in 2015 for a refugee status and still hasn’t had an answer. He doesn’t think he’ll ever get one. He has a work permit because he arrived back in 2007 when people were given visas.
We are scared that they will come and deport us. Where would we go? Rwanda is not a safe place. It’s not our country. We don’t know anyone there. If you agree to go to Rwanda or Uganda, it’s only because you have the money to then get to Europe.
If they give me 3,500 dollars, what can I do with that? That’s one month or two months of living in Rwanda. I have been in Israel for six years, I speak Hebrew, I have children and want them to live here and be educated here.
Migrants seen as “infiltrators”
More than 90 per cent of asylum seekers in Israel are from Eritrea or Sudan. The country’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has referred to migrants in the country as “illegal infiltrators”. The Israeli government estimates that about 60,000 people crossed over the Israeli-Egyptian border between 2006 and 2013, before a wall erected in 2013 effectively plugged the gap. In a public cabinet meeting on January 3, 2018, Netanyahu said, “We have expelled about 20,000 and now the mission is to get the rest out."
Hotline for Refugees and Migrants (HRM), an organisation that works to protect the rights of migrants and refugees in Israel, says that the asylum process is more streamlined for Ukrainian and Georgian applicants, of which there has been a significant increase. In the first half of 2017, Israel’s Population Immigration and Border Authority (PIBA) logged 5,718 applications from Ukrainians – up from only 703 in total across the whole of 2015.
Illegal, forbidden to work and at risk of arrest
Authorities have struggled to deal with this huge increase in asylum applications over the past few years. A report by HRM details how applicants in the queue are often told to leave, and are given a slip of paper with a precise date on which they can return and fill out and submit an asylum application. This slip of paper is an unsigned, unofficial document that grants no rights to the person who has it. If the asylum seeker’s visa runs out prior to the date specified on the piece of paper, they are left vulnerable: illegally residing in the country, forbidden to work and at risk of being arrested and put in jail. Every day that an asylum seeker is unable to enter the RSD office to submit their form is another day that they are at risk of arbitrary arrest – and they have to return and queue again the next day.
The UNHCR reports that there are about 27,500 Eritrean and 7,800 Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel. Only eight requests for asylum submitted by Sudanese or Eritrean asylum seekers have been accepted since 2009.