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 and whom the government could not deport to their home countries due to Israel’s temporary protection policy prohibiting deportation to those countries. As of September there were 34,370 irregular migrants and asylum seekers in this category, nearly all of whom were from Eritrea or Sudan, according to the Population and Immigration Authority (PIBA).
The first policy, announced in 2015, allowed deportation or indefinite detention of migrants and asylum seekers who refuse to depart the country “voluntarily.” On April 24, following three years of legal challenges, the government informed the Supreme Court that this policy had collapsed and it had no plan to deport migrants to a third country forcibly.
The second policy is to offer irregular migrants incentives to “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. In July media reported that the government had stopped offering voluntary departure to Rwanda. During the year, 2,667 irregular migrants departed the country, compared with 3,375 in 2017. Approximately 1,000 of those who departed during the year were resettled to Canada after the Canadian government accepted their refugee claims. NGO advocates for irregular migrants claimed many of those who departed to other countries faced abuses in those countries and that this transfer could amount to refoulement. UNHCR and NGOs reported that many individuals who departed to other countries quickly left or returned to their country of origin because the foreign countries in which they arrived did not accord them protection, residency, and employment rights. The government affirmed it maintained a series of mechanisms to monitor the conditions of those who departed under this program. Authorities stated they had successfully contacted by telephone more than 85 percent of those who departed during the year.
The third policy was detaining irregular migrants without a legal conviction in the Holot facility; however, this policy ended when Holot closed on March 12 (see section 1.d.).
On April 2, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced an agreement with UNHCR to relocate 16,000 Eritrean and Sudanese migrants to Western countries over the next five years while settling a similar number in Israel. Netanyahu canceled the agreement less than 24 hours later, following criticism from his coalition partners and public supporters.
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 six months. Only two Ministry of the Interior offices in the country, located in Bnei Brak and Eilat, renew these visas. The government provided these individuals with a limited form of group protection regarding freedom of movement, protection against refoulement, and informal access to the labor market. Advocacy groups argued that the policies and legislation adopted in 2011 were aimed at deterring future asylum seekers by making life difficult for those already in the country, and that these actions further curtailed the rights of the population and encouraged its departure.
Refugee status determination (RSD) recognition rates were extremely low. Since 2009 the government approved only 52 of 55,433 asylum requests, according to a report in May from the State Comptroller’s Office. The government approved six asylum requests during the year, including five from Eritreans and one from a Nigerian.
On February 15, an administrative appeals tribunal ruled that an Eritrean asylum seeker had a well founded fear of persecution after he fled military conscription, and PIBA should not have rejected his asylum application peremptorily. The Ministry of Interior appealed the ruling to a district court, where the case was pending as of the end of the year. As a result of the ruling, however, authorities released from detention 12 Eritreans with similar asylum claims that the government had previously rejected.
In February the government announced it would issue humanitarian visas, which allow migrants to work legally and to reenter Israel after a short departure, to 300 Sudanese migrants from Darfur, and in August the government announced it would issue another 300 to Sudanese migrants from Darfur, the Blue Nile, and Nuba Mountains. While this represented an improvement over previous “conditional release” status, NGOs cautioned that these migrants would continue to lack the full protections of refugee status. On October 28, the government announced a decision to cease issuance of the visas to Sudanese citizens and to begin examining their asylum claims individually.
Migrants from countries eligible for deportation under government policy and those who were unable to prove their citizenship, including those claiming to be Eritrean or Sudanese, were subjected to indefinite detention if they refused to depart after receiving a deportation order. There were 165 migrants with undetermined or disputed citizenship in detention at year’s end.
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 term comes from the 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Law that applies to persons who entered Israel illegally.
A report in May from the state comptroller criticized PIBA regarding excessively long processing time for asylum applications, poor service at RSD facilities, and the exclusion of UNHCR from the PIBA advisory committee that adjudicates asylum claims.
Palestinian residents of the West Bank who claimed to be in a life-threatening situation due to their sexual orientation or other reasons, such as domestic violence, did not have access to the asylum system in Israel. NGOs stated this left persons who claimed they could not return to the West Bank due to fear of persecution vulnerable to human traffickers, violence, and exploitation. The government stated that the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories examines each case individually, with a preference for solutions that allow such individuals to remain under Palestinian administration, but can grant a residence permit in Israel in acute cases.
The government did not accept initial asylum claims at its airports. In October the immigration authority denied entry to 13 Sri Lankan citizens who sought to claim asylum, according to media and NGO reports. The NGO Hotline for Refugees and Migrants appealed for their release and to prevent their deportation. The 13 asylum seekers remained in detention as of December 4.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: In 2017 PIBA announced a fast-track procedure to reject asylum applications from applicants whose country of citizenship the Ministry of the Interior determined was safe for return and began applying it to Georgian and Ukrainian applicants.
On October 7, PIBA announced the government ended the temporary protection policy for Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) citizens and those without a visa must leave Israel by January 5, 2019. Following a petition by human rights organizations, the Jerusalem District Court issued an injunction on December 31, suspending the order to depart. According to NGOs, as of October approximately 200 asylum claims from DRC citizens remained pending for more than 10 years. There were 314 DRC citizens in Israel at year’s end, according to media reports.
Freedom of Movement: Authorities prohibited asylum seekers released from the Holot facility from residing in Eilat and Tel Aviv. Additionally, following the closure of Holot, authorities prohibited asylum seekers from residing in Jerusalem, Petah Tikva, Netanya, Ashdod, and Bnei Brak.
Employment: The few recognized refugees received renewable work visas. Most asylum seekers 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 2017, 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 law 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 access the funds only 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. NGOs such as Kav LaOved and Hotline for Refugees and Migrants criticized the law for pushing vulnerable workers’ already low incomes below minimum wage, leading employers and employees to judge it to be more profitable to work on the black market, increasing migrants’ vulnerability to trafficking and prostitution. According to government officials and NGOs, some Eritrean women entered prostitution or survival sex arrangements in which a woman lives with several men and receives shelter in exchange for sex. The NGO ASSAF Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel reported significant increases in homelessness, mental health concerns, and requests for food assistance following implementation of the law. In contrast to 2017, when technical problems prevented those who departed the country from receiving the accumulated funds, the government stated that 722 departing migrants withdrew their funds during the year. Kav LaOved reported there was no way for migrants to monitor their deposit balance, and approximately half of the funds were never deposited in the account by employers, despite withholding the funds from their employees. At least 30 migrants left the country without receiving any money that was deducted from their wages, according to Kav LaOved. A coalition of NGOs petitioned the Supreme Court against the deposit law in March 2017, leading the Knesset’s committee on Labor, Welfare, and Health to pass a regulation on June 27, reducing the deduction to 6 percent for vulnerable populations, including recognized trafficking victims. PIBA did not accept a letter from the police that confers official recognition as a trafficking victim for the purpose of reducing the deduction or refunding the deposit, according to Kav LaOved.
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 and shelter 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 public housing, income assistance, or free health insurance to the most vulnerable individuals, including children, single parents, persons with chronic illnesses, and persons with disabilities. For example, Physicians for Human Rights Israel reported on the difficulties faced by five cancer patients who needed treatment during the year. The Ministry of Health offered medical insurance for minor children of asylum seekers for 120 shekels ($33) per month. 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. 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. The Ministry of Health funded one provider of mental health services to irregular migrants, which NGOs praised as very effective but overburdened.
Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary protection to individuals whom it did not recognize as refugees or may not qualify as refugees and did so primarily to Eritrean and Sudanese irregular migrants, as described above.