Israel Has Granted Refugee Status to 0.07% of African Asylum Seekers

haaretz israel least moral country in the world

Update 25 February 2015: The editors of leading Israeli newspaper Haaretz (often referred to as “the New York Times of Israel”) published an editorial on 23 February lamenting “Another tragedy of Israel’s immoral African refugee policy,” explicitly stating that “Israel is the least moral country in the world when it comes to awarding asylum to those who deserve it, UN numbers show.”

African refugees behind a barbed-wire fence in Israel's Holot detention center in the Negev desert  CREDIT: Reuters

African refugees behind a barbed-wire fence in Israel’s Holot detention center in the Negev desert
CREDIT: Reuters

(24 February 2015)

Israel has not granted a single Sudanese asylum seeker refugee status, in spite of a wave of migrants fleeing violence, according to official state statistics, submitted to the High Court of Justice on February 16. In all, the government has granted refugee status to only 0.07% of the 5,573 Sudanese and Eritreans who have applied for asylum in the country—a mere four individuals.

Haaretz published the statistics. The following is a summary of the findings:

Sudanese Refugees

  • 3,165 Sudanese refugees submitted asylum requests from July 2009 to 2015.
  • 1% (45) of these applications were answered by Israel. 99% (3120) were ignored.
  • 89% (40) of the 45 requests the government answered were rejected. The remaining 5 were granted temporary residence (not refugee status).
  • 0 of the 3,165 asylum seekers were granted refugee status.
  • 31% (976) of the Sudanese asylum seekers who applied left Israel in response to the inaction.
  • 69% (2,184) of the Sudanese refugees who applied remain in Israel.
  • Worldwide, 56% of Sudanese asylum seekers received refugee status or extended protection in the first half of 2014, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Eritrean Refugees

  • 2,408 Eritrean refugees submitted asylum requests in the same period.
  • 45% (1073) of these applications were answered by Israel. 55% (1,335) were ignored.
  • 93% (997) of the requests the government answered were rejected.
  • 0.16% (4) of the Eritrean asylum seekers were granted refugee status.
  • 3% (72) of the Eritrean asylum seekers who applied left Israel.
  • 97% (2332) of the Eritrean refugees who applied remain in Israel.
  • Worldwide, 84% of Eritrean asylum seekers received refugee status or extended protection in the first half of 2014, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).


  • 17,778 refugees, from a variety of countries, applied for asylum in Israel from mid-2009 to 2015.
  • 69% (12,220) of these applications were answered by Israel. 31% (5,558) were ignored.
  • 99.6% (12,175) of the requests the government answered were either rejected or withdrawn.
  • 0.25% (45) of the total asylum seekers were granted refugee status.

Holot Detention Center

  • 1,940 refugees are being held in the Holot detention center.
  • 76% (1,476) are Sudanese.
  • 24% (464) are Eritrean.
  • 45% (865) have been detained for over 9 months.
  • 62% (1,198) migrated to Israel at least six years ago.
  • 22% (1,258) of the 5,803 Sudanese and Eritrean refugees who left Israel in 2014 were held in Holot or Saharonim prison.

These applications only constitute a fraction of the African refugees in Israel. Government data estimates that, as of 2014, there were approximately 8,800 Sudanese and 34,000 Eritreans refugees in the country. The actual number of documented refugees is thus many times lower.

Haaretz reported that almost 1/4 (22%) of the positions budgeted for Israel’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority’s Refugee Status Determination Unit are not currently staffed, and Israel claims it is in the process of filling this spots. Amnon Ben Ami, director of the Population, Immigration and Border Authority, claimed the 3,519 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers whose applications have been ignored will get a response within the next year.

The attorney representing Israel, Yochi Gnessin, said one of the reasons the country sends refugees to the Holot detention center is to encourage their “voluntary exit.” Gnessin has come under fire in the past for, in the words of Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, claiming “that all of the IDF conversions [to Judaism] are invalid,” when she represented the state in the High Court of Justice in 2010.

Anti-Black Racism in Israel

The majority of the Sudanese refugees in Israel are there because they have fled violence, primarily in the Darfur region. Yet they find themselves in a deeply racist society—one not just violently racist against Palestinians, but against Africans as well. As I detailed in a Mondoweiss article about the relationship between Zionism and anti-black racism:

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has gone on record calling his country, in the words of the Jerusalem Post, “a sick society that needs treatment.” Haaretz, the “Israeli New York Times,” has also shown that racism is getting even worse among younger generations, that Israeli teenagers are “Racist and proud of it.”

This racism manifests itself politically in the form of apartheid. In 2007, David A. Kirshbaum, of the Israel Law Resource Center, published a piece titled “Israeli Apartheid — A Basic Legal Perspective,” meticulously detailing the myriad ways in which Israel is an apartheid state, under its very own laws. Once again, Israel’s most-read newspaper has published pieces confirming this fact, admitting that “Israeli Arabs have never been equal before the law.”

And yet, as the aforementioned incident evinces, this racism is not only directed at Palestinians. David Sheen has been “carefully chronicling the racist attacks against non-Jewish African asylum-seekers in Israel for several years,” documenting “social media stories about the recent violence, footage from four years of anti-African rallies, and extended one-on-one interviews about opposition to the presence of Africans in Israel.” He writes:

In January 2012, an organization in Israel that aids African asylum-seekers, the African Refugee Development Center, asked me to author on their behalf a report to the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). After receiving the report in text and video form, the UN committee urged the Israeli government to prevent racist attacks against Africans in Israel. The Israeli government ignored the UN’s call, and the following month, Israelis firebombed a kindergarten for African children in Tel Aviv, igniting a wave of violence against non-Jewish African people in Israel that is still ongoing.

Blumenthal and Sheen released a brief documentary titled “Israel’s New Racism: The Persecution of African Migrants in the Holy Land.” In it, they show video footage of prominent politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Member of Knesset Michael Ben-Ari, calling African refugees “infiltrators” and “cancer,” and openly using the n-word; of Israeli citizens harassing fellow Israelis for engaging in interracial relationships; and of some politicians even going so far as to propose the creation of concentration camps in which to hold African refugees.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also drawn attention to the vitriolic strain of anti-black racism in Israeli society. In its September 2014 report “Make Their Lives Miserable”: Israel’s Coercion of Eritrean and Sudanese Asylum Seekers to Leave Israel details how “Israeli authorities have labelled Eritreans and Sudanese a ‘threat,’ branded them ‘infiltrators,’ denied them access to fair and efficient asylum procedures, and used the resulting insecure legal status as a pretext to unlawfully detain or threaten to detain them indefinitely, coercing thousands into leaving.”

HRW writes that “Israel’s policies are well summed up in the words of former Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai who said that as long as Israel cannot deport them to their home countries, it should ‘lock them up to make their lives miserable.’”

In the time since Blumenthal and Sheen’s documentary was made (mid 2013), Israel has in fact created what are effectively internment camps for African refugees. Israeli journalist Lia Tarachansky, reporting for the Real News, has documented these horrific practices.

Tarachansky notes that African refugees are imprisoned en masse in open-air prison camps in the middle of nowhere. They are told they are not prisoners, but they must sign in three times per day, and the prison camp is so far from any neighboring city that it is impossible to leave on foot. Moreover, when African refugees collectively decide to leave in protest of the concentration camp conditions in which they are involuntarily held, the army violently stops them. In response, African refugees are now going on hunger strike.

Israel’s modus operandi for dealing with this supposed refugee “problem” has been to trade African asylum-seekers with other countries in exchange for weapons. It goes without saying that such a decision bears striking and grotesque resemblances to slavery. (It might also, significantly, be herein noted that the US is complicit in this neo-slavery process, as the weapons Israel is exchanging for human beings may very well have been bought with the US’ over $100 billion of military aid.)

Even African Jews are not immune from this intense, unmitigated racism. Israel has admitted to forcibly sterilizing Ethiopian Jews, in an action that some argue constitutes the legal definition of genocide. Magen David Adom, the “Israeli Red Cross,” has refused to take blood donations from one of its own country’s Members of Knesset, Pnina Tamano-Shata, referring to it as “the special kind of Jewish-Ethiopian blood” they avoid.

Scholar Hanan Chehata has thoroughly detailed Israel’s “overt racism” against and segregation of African Jews, calling the ethnocracy the “promised land for Jews … as long as they’re not black.” The chief rabbi of Petach Tikvah (a “sister city” of Chicago) went to so far as to refuse to wed Ethiopian Jews, because he doubted that they were truly Jewish. Clearly, Israel’s white supremacist Zionism leads to its own despicable form of anti-Semitism.

The prison camp Lia Tarachansky has reported on for months is the Holot detention center, where many of these refugees are held, as detailed above. Tarachansky exposes the conditions these refugees must endure with chilling video footage for The Real News:

Under Israel’s so-called “Infiltrators Law”—so named because Israeli politicians refer to African refugees as “infiltrators”—the government can put asylum-seekers in the camp for up to 20 months. Israeli human rights organizations have petitioned against what they say is an openly racist and harsh law. The Israeli High Court ruled that the concentration camp-like facility be closed, but Knesset Interior and Environment Committee Chair Miri Regev, of the ruling right-wing Likud party, has vowed to keep it open.

In response to the High Court’s mandate to close Holot, Israelis filled the street, carrying ISIS-style flags in an anti-African rally, chanting “N*ggers go home” and “Sudanese to Sudan, Eritreans to Sudan,” where a civil war is raging. Israelis also shouted at African refugees “May you get AIDS, you whore. … May you be raped, you maniac. You’ll get raped and get AIDS. I spit on you, you garbage. May you be raped, you whore.” They called Israelis who defend the refugees “whores,” and a man in video footage taken by David Sheen can be seen shouting, in English, “F*ck you motherf*cker, piece of sh*t. Go back to Africa. We hate you as much as we can. Go back to Africa.”

According to Sheen, anti-black racism continues to get worse, not better: its “anti-African dragnet tightens.” For three years in a row, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has topped Sheen’s “list of Israel’s racist ringleaders.” Members of Netanyahu’s administration blame African refugees for the spread of diseases and speak of them as “a cancer in our body,” leading violent anti-African demonstrations where racist Israelis brutalize innocent African passerby. On Rosh HaShana, the Jewish new year, in his annual video message to the Israeli people, Netanyahu bragged of his crackdown on African asylum-seekers.

Many, if not most, of the African refugees in Israel cannot return to their homeland, where they would face violence, war, or even death. In 2013, Israel deported thousands of Sudanese refugees to Sudan, in spite of threats to their lives. It did not inform the UNHCR that it was doing so, in flagrant contravention of international law.