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UNHCR Stands Up for Refugees in Israel

March 12, 2013

In what appears to be a strongly worded statement, UNHCR has asked the Israeli High Court to strike down the country’s Infiltration Law. The 2012 law which imposes harsh prison sentences on refugees and other migrants who cross Israel’s borders, especially targeting Africans who are smuggled or trafficked over the Sinai. According to quotes carried in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, UNHCR told the court:

UNHCR considers that the above-outlined provisions of the Law are not in conformity with international human rights and refugee law standards, including the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol. … Beyond an initial security screening, the automatic and continued detention of refugees and asylum-seekers classified as ‘infiltrators’ based on the sole reason of having entered Israel irregularly would not meet international standards. That is, any extension of detention beyond an initial security screening for a particular refugee or asylum-seeker would only be lawful if it is assessed in a proper procedure to be necessary, reasonable and proportionate measure to a legitimate purpose in their individual case.

Israel’s parliament enacted the Infiltration Law in response to a wave of asylum-seekers arriving through Egypt over the last five years, many from Eritrea and Sudan. Israel has constructed detention camps and a wall along its southern border. It has been faulted for preventing asylum-seekers from entering and for deporting them in violation of the principle of non-refoulement.

“UNHCR is of the opinion that the outcome of this petition will have far-reaching implications for the protection of refugees and asylum-seekers, in Israel and internationally.”

The Israeli government began taking over refugee status determination from UNHCR more than a decade ago, and has received training on RSD from UNHCR, the US Government and humanitarian organizations. But its RSD system recognizes less than 1 percent of applications, and systematically prevents asylum-seekers from countries most likely to generate valid refugee claims (like Eritrea) from having their cases heard. Last month human rights groups sounded the alarm about 23 Eritreans threatened with deportation from Israel without having been allowed to apply for asylum.

At the end of February, UNHCR demanded Israel provide an explanation for the reported return of around 1000 Sudanese through a third country. The government claimed the returns were voluntary. UNHCR’s representative said in an interview that many allegedly voluntary returns from detention centers were effectively forced because “there is no voluntary return from prison because there is no free will.”

Making submissions to court insisting on adherence to international refugee law is common for UNHCR in many countries, and this is not the first time UNHCR has done so in Israel. But it nevertheless is a stark contrast from a decade ago, when UNHCR pursued a strategy of behind-the-scenes diplomacy in Israel and was represented in Jerusalem by a former Israeli diplomat. For many years Israel received fewer than 1000 asylum requests each year. In 1995, Israel’s High Court issued an initial decision recognizing the principle of non-refoulement. In 2001 Israel took its first steps toward operating its own asylum-systems. But the country did not put in place any firm legal groundwork to receive refugees, relying on ad hoc solutions often worked out with UNHCR for particular groups or individuals.

Now, with close to 50,000 refugees in the country, the ad hoc system has long ago given way to harsh legislation, which is now in the hands of the High Court.

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