Israel granted political asylum to two Eritrean nationals, the Interior Ministry said Sunday. The move came after a series of high-profile protests by African migrants seeking refugee status in the country.
The ministry said the cases had been under consideration for nearly a year, and that the granting of their asylum was unrelated to the ongoing protests or international pressure.
Israel is home to tens of thousands of migrants from Africa, many of whom are seeking asylum, but the country rarely grants refugee status and has been accused of dragging its feet in processing asylum requests.
The Foreign Ministry said in early January that the Interior Ministry was examining hundreds of asylum requests in coordination with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and that all applications are given “thorough treatment” and all international legal obligations are honored.
“Israel tries to balance the need to control its borders with the need to protect the human rights of those who enter,” it said.
On Sunday, about 60 Africans migrants reported to a center in Tel Aviv for transport to the Holot detention center in the Negev, Ynet News reported. The facility has an open-door policy in which residents are permitted to leave the site during the day but are required to return three times a day for a roll call.
Over 50,000 African migrants, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, are believed to be in Israel illegally.
Residents of south Tel Aviv, where many of the Africans live, alleged that their quality of life has declined and the influx has led to an increase in crime.
In December, the Knesset passed a new law allowing for the incarceration of illegal migrants for up to a year without trial and to keep them indefinitely at a detention facility in southern Israel. The move drew criticism from the UN, which the government brushed off.
In early January, a well-organized campaign was launched by the African migrants in support of their quest for official refugee status in Israel. Before temporarily halting the protests after the January 11 death of former prime minister Ariel Sharon, organizers were able to draw a crowd of 10,000 at the Knesset and an estimated 20,000 rallied in Tel Aviv, while over 100 migrants began an open-ended hunger strike.
Israel is a signatory to the United Nation’s 1951 Refugee Convention, which makes it illegal to imprison or penalize refugees. But while most migrants in Israel say they are seeking refugee status, the Israeli government has remained firm in its stance that the vast majority of the 50,000 are not refugees at all, but rather illegal migrants who came to Israel seeking economic gain.
The government has reiterated that it does not plan to change its policies.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.