The Population Authority plans to deport only single, male, working-age asylum seekers, and hopes to give some type of permanent status to African women and children migrants, according to Population Immigration and Borders Authority director Shlomo Mor-Yosef.
This is a departure from previous statements from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that women and children asylum seekers are not slated for deportation “at this stage” but could be in the future.
“We can be more generous with the people who stay if we send the people out that we can send out,” Mor-Yosef told The Times of Israel. “We need to do a trade-off. We can give the women and children status, if we send out the single men. The families can stay.”
Mor-Yosef estimated that approximately half of the 38,000 asylum seekers in Israel fit the profile of unmarried male asylum seekers of working age and should be deported.
“We think that about 80 percent [of the African migrants in Israel] are economic migrants and 20% are true refugees,” Mor-Yosef said. “If you look at the profile of the community here, most are men of working age. Generally when you see a refugee population it’s more women and children.”
Mor-Yosef defended Israel’s exceptionally low percentage of asylum seekers who receive refugee status. Of the approximately 16,000 applications for refugee status to date, Israel has only recognized 13 asylum seekers as refugees — 12 Eritreans and 1 Sudanese.
Internationally, the European Union has recognized asylum claims from 90% of Eritreans who apply for refugee status and 56% of Sudanese, according to the European Stability Institute.
“According to the international law there is a legal definition of a refugee,” said Mor-Yosef. “Any country can expand the definition of a refugee if they want to. We don’t. Israel hasn’t expanded the definition of the refugee because we don’t encourage immigration from non-Jews.”
Mor-Yosef said many Eritreans are requesting refugee status because they are fleeing from army service. Army service in Eritrea is compulsory and can last decades.
But “request for serving in the army is not part of the legal definition of a refugee,” Mor-Yosef said. “If it was, it could be that an Israeli would go to the US and say I’m a refugee because I don’t want to serve in the Israeli army.”
However, Mor-Yosef said, the Population Authority will reexamine some Eritrean asylum requests following a ruling from an immigration appeal panel in February that a 29-year-old Eritrean should receive refugee status after he deserted the military. Judge Elad Azar ruled in the court, one of four courts that handle immigration issues for the Population Authority, that the asylum seeker had a “very well-founded basis for persecution.”
The asylum seeker in the court case, M., was drafted at age 17 and not allowed to see his family for two years. When he tried to desert the army, he was imprisoned in an underground cell for five months and then forced to do hard labor for a year, until he escaped and made his way to Israel.
Mor-Yosef said that the ruling in the appeals court means that the Population Authority may reexamine the requests of asylum seekers who have similar criteria, specifically, imprisonment in harsh conditions following an attempt to leave the military. However, he did not give a timeline or details about the type of review. The ruling at the appeals court requires each asylum case to be examined individually and is not a blanket ruling for all Eritrean draft-dodgers.
Mor-Yosef, a doctor specializing in oncological gynecology, was previously the director general of Hadassah Medical Organization for 11 years. He spent a total of 38 years at Hadassah, ending in 2011. From 2012 to 2016, Mor-Yosef was the director general of the National Insurance Institute. He became the head of the Population Authority in 2017.
A double standard on Israel
Mor-Yosef accused the international community of holding Israel to a double standard. “Last month I met with European leaders, and I said to them, how can you say that Eritrea is dangerous and yet there are still people that you don’t give refugee status to?” he asked. “If it’s unsafe, it’s unsafe for everyone.”
Sr Azezet Kidane, an Eritrean nun who works with asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv and co-founded Kucinate, an economic empowerment program for African women, worried that deporting all of the working-age men will thrust the African community deeper into poverty and isolation. Many asylum seekers are already living in crowded conditions, multiple people to a room, in order to save money on rent. Their economic situation became even more precarious since the 20% law passed last year, requiring asylum seekers to deposit 20% of their paycheck in a fund that is only accessible once they leave the country.
Kidane said many of the women are single mothers who rely on working-age men, such as distant family members or friends from their villages in Eritrea, in order to make ends meet. If the working-age men are deported, she worries, the women will not be able to pay rent and will find themselves homeless.
“People want to survive and to live, it’s not that they want to do anything else,” she said. “[Israelis] should not to think that people around you are a threat… nobody wants to stay here for life. They want to only stay until their situation at home is better. All of them want to go back, nobody wants to stay here.”
Mor-Yosef said the government is already easing the requirements for asylum seeker women and children by providing them with visas they must renew every six months instead of every two months. He stressed that children of asylum seekers are already incorporated into the Israeli school system and receive a type of health insurance that covers emergencies, though it has a higher co-pay than national insurance for Israeli residents.
Mor-Yosef said he believes the recent court cases targeting the specific aspects of the deportation process — including a High Court of Justice freeze on deportations until April 9 — are temporary setbacks and Israel will resume deportations after the court cases are resolved. He said approximately 10,000 asylum seekers have left Israel over the past few years.
Around 4,000 were “willingly deported” to places like Uganda and Rwanda, and the remainder was resettled in third countries such as Canada, Australia, and the United States with the help of international governments. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees announced in February that it wants to take an approach similar to Mor-Yosef’s, helping to resettle approximately half of the asylum seekers in third countries it deems safe and facilitate permanent status for the remainder of the asylum seekers.
“I think this is the correct approach, that the families and others have rights for health care and everything else, and whoever doesn’t need to be here isn’t here,” said Mor-Yosef.