Refoulement: The government provided some protection against expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom could be threatened and stated its commitment to the principle of nonrefoulement. The government maintained three policies to induce departure of irregular migrants and asylum seekers who entered the country without permission, almost all of whom were from Eritrea and Sudan. As of September there were approximately 38,000 irregular migrants and asylum seekers in the country, of whom approximately 500 entered as unaccompanied minors and approximately 7,000 were women, according to NGOs.
The first policy, announced in 2015, allows deportation of migrants and asylum seekers who refuse to depart the country “voluntarily.” On August 28, the Supreme Court ruled that in principle migrants can be deported to a third country against their will but ruled the government cannot detain migrants for more than 60 days to persuade them to accept “voluntary departure.” As of December 31, no migrants were known to have been jailed under this policy.
The second policy is to offer irregular migrants incentives to “voluntarily depart” the country to one of two unspecified third countries in Africa, sometimes including a $3,500 stipend (paid in U.S. dollars). The government claimed the third-country governments provided for full rights under secret agreements with Israel. The government provided most returnees with paid tickets to either Uganda or Rwanda, but NGOs and UNHCR confirmed that migrants who arrived in Uganda and Rwanda did not receive residency or employment rights. During the year approximately 4,000 irregular migrants departed the country, compared with 3,607 in 2016 and 3,381 in 2015. In 2015 a Be’er Sheva court upheld the legality of the secrecy of these agreements in response to a petition by NGOs. Prior to departure the Population and Immigration Authority and the Custody Review Tribunal reviewed mandatory recorded video interviews and written statements of those who opted to participate in the voluntary return program to verify they were departing voluntarily. NGO advocates for asylum seekers claimed the policy led to abuses in the receiving countries, and that this transfer could amount to refoulement. UNHCR and NGOs reported the policy led to many individuals’ quickly leaving again to other countries or returning to their country of origin because the foreign countries in which they arrived did not accord them protection, residency, and employment rights. HRW and the HRM documented the treatment of some returnees whom Sudanese and Eritrean authorities arrested upon their return to Sudan and Eritrea, reporting that authorities surveilled, beat, threatened, and in some cases tortured them. The Israeli government affirmed it maintained a series of mechanisms to monitor the conditions of those who departed “voluntarily.” Authorities stated they had successfully contacted by telephone more than 80 percent of those who departed, and the majority of those individuals had no complaints.
The third policy is detaining irregular migrants without conviction in the Holot or Saharonim detention facilities (see below).
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting of asylum or refugee status. The government has established a system for providing protection to refugees, but it has rarely done so. In 2008 authorities began giving the majority of asylum seekers a “conditional release visa” that requires renewal every one to four months. Only two Ministry of the Interior offices in the country, located in Tel Aviv and Eilat--the two cities where migrants are forbidden to live after gaining release from the Holot facility--renew these visas. The Ministry of the Interior closed a third visa renewal office, in Be’er Sheva, during the year, and the Supreme Court rejected a petition against the closure of that office in September. The government provided these individuals with a limited form of group protection regarding freedom of movement, protection against refoulement, and some informal access to the labor market. Access to health care, shelter, and education was inconsistently available. The protection environment significantly deteriorated following the adoption in late 2011 of policies and legislation aimed at deterring future asylum seekers by making life difficult for those already in the country. These actions further curtailed the rights of the population and encouraged its departure.
Refugee status determination (RSD) recognition rates were extremely low. In the 2012-17 period, the government received 44,752 asylum applications, including 19,292 from citizens of Ukraine and Georgia from January 1, 2016, to October 26, 2017. As of October 26, the government had received 3,950 applications from citizens of other countries. During the year the government approved no asylum requests. The government granted refugee status to a Sudanese applicant for the first time in June 2016. Authorities stated the reason for the high proportion of unresolved applications is that the Ministry of the Interior’s RSD unit has been overwhelmed with applications. NGOs rejected this explanation, pointing to government statements and policies pressuring irregular migrants to depart the country.
In June the government announced it would issue A/5 humanitarian visas to 200 Sudanese migrants from Darfur. While this represented an improvement over the 2A5 “conditional release” status, NGOs cautioned that even these 200 migrants would continue to lack the full protections of refugee status. In February the Population and Immigration Authority issued new guidelines to RSD adjudicators to increase their sensitivity to gender problems. The new guidelines did not create new protection categories or lead to an increase in RSD approvals.
In September 2016 an administrative appeals tribunal ruled that asylum applications from Eritreans should not be rejected out of hand on the basis of fleeing military conscription, but a district court later overturned the ruling. In response to a November 2016 ruling by another administrative appeals tribunal, which overturned the government’s blanket rejection of applications submitted more than one year after arrival, the government agreed to reopen those applications.
Data that the HRM received under the Freedom of Information Law revealed that as of 2015 there were 16 migrants who had been detained for more than three years, 30 migrants detained between two to three years, and 31 migrants detained between one to two years. In July 2016, following a court order, authorities released an asylum seeker from Guinea detained in Saharonim Prison for 10 years. Migrants who were unable to prove their citizenship, including those claiming to be Eritrean or Sudanese, were subject to the same policy of indefinite detention as migrants from countries eligible for deportation. UNHCR reported more than 30 migrants with undetermined or disputed citizenship in long-term detention as of October. During the year the government released two Eritrean human trafficking victims whom prison authorities had detained for more than five years because they were unable to prove they were Eritrean citizens, according to the HRM.
Despite a stated nondeportation policy preventing refoulement of irregular migrants and asylum seekers to Eritrea and Sudan, government officials and media outlets continued to refer to asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan as “infiltrators.” The government and media did not apply those descriptions to the large number of asylum seekers from Ukraine and Georgia, who mostly entered on tourist visas before applying for asylum. On February 26, the Population and Immigration Authority (PIBA) announced a fast-track procedure to reject asylum applications from applicants whose country of citizenship the Ministry of the Interior had determined is safe for return and began applying it to Georgian applicants. PIBA expanded the fast-track procedure to Ukrainian applicants on October 17.
UNHCR expressed continuing concerns for Palestinian residents of the West Bank who claimed to be in a life-threatening situation due to their sexual orientation and who requested legal residency status in Israel. There is no mechanism for granting such persons legal status, leaving those who cannot return to the West Bank due to fear of persecution vulnerable to human traffickers, violence, and exploitation. The government stated that an interministerial committee headed by the Prime Minister’s Office recommended the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories welfare coordinator only handle “extreme cases where a person claims to be threatened for reasons other than collaboration” with the Israeli authorities.
Freedom of Movement: The Prevention of Infiltration Law defines all irregular border crossers as “infiltrators” and permits authorities to detain irregular migrants, including asylum seekers and their children. Under the Law of Entry, the government can detain irregular migrants based on an administrative order rather than through the legal process. In 2014 the Supreme Court struck down the section of the law that allowed irregular migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers, to be detained in the Holot facility indefinitely, and in 2015 the Supreme Court set the limit at one year. The government may still hold irregular migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers, in Saharonim Prison for three months on arrival and then move them to Holot for 12 months.
As a semiopen facility, authorities closed Holot from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily and required check-in at 10 p.m. Authorities did not confine detainees to their rooms during the night, but they could not leave the facility.
In February, African migrants and asylum seekers detained in the Holot detention facility complained of poor medical care. Authorities provided detainees with a bed, clothes, clean towels, food, free medical care, and air-conditioned living quarters. Dental care was not available in Holot. Beginning during the year, a psychiatrist was available once a week. Detainees received a monthly allowance of 480 shekels ($134), but authorities regularly docked detainees’ monthly allowance for minor infractions. In response to a lawsuit by a human rights NGO against overcrowding of 10 detainees into each room in the Holot facility, the Supreme Court ruled in June that each room must be limited to six individuals by March 2018.
An amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law, passed in 2014, excluded from summoning to Holot all women and children, men who could prove that they have a wife or children in Israel for whom they provide, persons over age 60, and those whose health could be negatively affected by detention in Holot. The amendment also excluded from summoning recognized victims of trafficking, but did not exclude survivors of torture who do not meet the criteria of trafficking victims. The government reported it released one trafficking victim from the Holot facility in 2016, as well as 13 from the Givon facility. UNHCR reported it was aware of many cases in which authorities did not exempt victims of torture, as well as several cases involving individuals with serious physical or mental health problems. In January the HRM filed a case to the Supreme Court against detention of torture survivors at Holot, and the case continued as of October.
Employment: The few recognized refugees received renewable work visas. In 2015 many asylum seekers who once had B/1 work visas had this status downgraded, and most held a 2A5 visa, which explicitly reads, “This is not a work visa.” The government allowed asylum seekers to work in the informal sector but not to open their own businesses or register to pay value-added tax, although the law does not prohibit these activities. Despite the lack of a legal right to employment, the government’s published policy was not to indict asylum seekers or their employers for their employment. In September, however, the Supreme Court ruled that asylum seekers are included as “foreign workers,” a category prohibited by Finance Ministry regulations from working on government contracts, including local government contracts for cleaning and maintenance, which often employed irregular migrants.
The Prevention of Infiltration Law, which took effect May 1, requires employers to deduct 20 percent of irregular migrants’ salaries for deposit in a special fund and adds another 16 percent from the employer’s funds. The employee can only access the funds upon departure from the country, and the government may deduct a penalty for each day that the employee is in the country without a visa. In October an organization assisting irregular migrants reported a 20-percent increase in requests for food aid after the law took effect. NGOs such as Kav LaOved and the HRM criticized the law for pushing vulnerable workers’ already low incomes below minimum wage, and leading employers and employees to judge it to be more profitable to work on the black market. As of October technical problems prevented those who departed the country from receiving the accumulated funds. A coalition of NGOs petitioned the Supreme Court against the law, and the first hearing was on July 26. The case continued as of November 1.
Detainees in the Holot facility are prohibited from working outside the facility, but some worked inside the facility for less than the minimum wage. Some of the facility’s services depended on detainee labor.
The law bars migrants from sending money abroad, limits to the minimum wage for the number of months they resided in the country the amount they may take with them when they leave, and defines taking money out of the country as a money-laundering crime.
Access to Basic Services: Access to health care, shelter, and education was available on an inconsistent basis. The few recognized refugees received social services, including access to the national health-care system, but the government did not provide asylum seekers with public social benefits such as health insurance, public housing, or income assistance to the most vulnerable individuals, including children, single parents, and persons with disabilities. The NGO Physicians for Human Rights Israel reported that the lack of health insurance for persons without civil status in the country made them dependent on limited solutions, such as those offered by the Ministry of Health or humanitarian organizations. The government stated it provided infirmary services, including laboratory services, medical imaging, and general and mental hospitalization services in the Holot facility for individuals held there, including asylum seekers. UNHCR reported, however, that when a detainee accessed health services, another detainee often provided translation, compromising confidentiality and potentially affecting the quality of treatment. The government sponsored a mobile clinic, and mother and infant health-care stations in south Tel Aviv, which were accessible to migrants and asylum seekers. The clinic provided health and dental services, evaluation and treatment of sexually transmitted disease, and prenatal and infant medical care. Hospitals provided emergency care to migrants but often denied follow-up treatment to those who failed to pay for their emergency care, according to NGOs.
Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection primarily to Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers, as described above.