Israel’s obligations under the United Nations’ Refugee Convention mean it cannot repatriate people who cross its borders and claim to be in deadly danger at home, a UN official said Sunday.
The issue arose after the arrival of seven wounded Syrians on Saturday suggested that refugees could begin coming from Israel’s war-torn neighbor in greater numbers.
The men, brought into Israel by Israeli troops on humanitarian grounds and currently undergoing medical treatment, are the first Syrian citizens to cross Israel’s border to flee the violence in their home country. According to UN statistics, nearly 687,000 Syrians have fled since fighting erupted in 2011. Most are currently in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq.
The men were spotted by Israeli troops near the Kuneitra crossing on the Golan Heights on Saturday afternoon and were taken to hospital in Safed. Israeli media identified them as rebel fighters, but they have been kept away from reporters and their identities are unclear.
The United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention requires that “anyone who crosses an international border and believes his life to be in danger in his country of origin must be given access to an asylum process,” Sharon Harel, assistant protection officer at the Israel office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told The Times of Israel.
The convention, and Israeli law, forbid the government from forcibly repatriating asylum-seekers, Harel said. That would apply even to citizens of an enemy state like Syria.
Harel was outlining Israel’s general obligations to asylum-seekers. She said she did not have information on the men who arrived Saturday and would not relate to the specifics of their case.
Israel has provided some collective legal protection for the estimated 70,000 African asylum-seekers who have arrived in the country over the last decade, but almost never grants refugee status. According to Harel, only 200 asylum-seekers have been officially declared refugees, and of those only 100 remain in Israel. The rest remain in legal limbo, neither deported nor absorbed.
For Israel, the arrival of a significant number of Syrians would be more complicated than the influx of Africans. Syria is one of Israel’s most bitter enemies, and a large number of Syrian nationals within the country’s borders would pose a security threat.
Speaking at the weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear Israel would not open its borders to Syrian refugees as a matter of course.
“We saw fighting yesterday on our borders,” Netanyahu said. “We will continue to protect our borders and prevent people crossing or entering into Israel, except for individual, specific cases, each of which will be considered on its own merit.”
The army allowed the seven men into Israel on Saturday because of “extenuating circumstances,” a defense official told The Times of Israel.
“This is not a precedent or a policy shift,” he said.
The official would not say whether the army was preparing for a larger influx of Syrians fleeing the fighting on the other side of the border.