The Israeli government currently faces severe pushback on its plans to deport thousands of mostly Eritrean and Sudanese refugees to third countries, namely Uganda and Rwanda. YRIS sat down on April 12, 2018 with Tally Kritzman-Amir, a senior lecturer of International Law and Immigration and Refugee Law at The College of Law and Business in Israel and a visiting Yale professor, to get a clearer picture of this situation in Israel.
YRIS: Israel has been in the news lately for its treatment of African refugees, namely from Sudan and Eritrea. Asylum seekers report being offered a stipend to relocate to Rwanda or Uganda as an alternative to detention. What principles of refugee law does this violate exactly?
TK: The asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan are people who are lawfully staying in Israel by the virtue of them being admitted to some degree and are allowed to stay there under temporary arrangements for a long period of time. Removing them forcibly to either of those countries would be forced expulsion which is a violation of article 32 of the refugee convention. Since both of those countries don’t really give them any long term protection or rights they are not safe in those countries and have to engage in onward migration and therefore its also a violation of the non-refoulement principle in article 33 of the convention.
YRIS: Many Eritrean men have fled conscription in the Eritrean army, which is known to be an abusive and indefinite service akin to modern day slavery. Yet Israel does not recognize this as a grounds for asylum. Is this fair on Israel’s part?
TK: I don’t think so — It goes against the UNHCR position in this context. In fact, in the last few weeks there was a decision given in the lower appellate court that Israel should not reject people whose asylum application is based on the fact that they fled service in the army in Eritrea. The government just yesterday requested a repeal of that decision because it is not willing to grant such persons asylum. But I think failure to granting draft evaders refugee protection is a violation of the refugee convention as it is broadly understood in most western countries.
YRIS: How heavily does Israel’s desire to remain a predominately Jewish state play into their refugee dealings?
TK: I think that’s a big part of why Israel is behaving to refugees as it is. There’s some irony in that because in the 1950s when the refugee convention was drafted, Israel was really active in the drafting process because it had an interest in protecting Jewish refugees. But now when it’s Israel’s turn to give back and protect non-Jewish refugees, it’s not really fulfilling its legal obligations.
YRIS: Is there support for these asylum seekers from Israeli civil society?
TK: The Israeli civil society has been very engaged in finding deportations and helping refugees and asylum seekers throughout the various stages of their battles in Israel. Practically every abusive step that the Israeli government tried to implement toward refugees and asylum seekers was challenged by the civil society in the courts. Some of the NGOS are basically doing what the government should be doing— offering social services, medical care or legal aid to the refugees and asylum seekers.
YRIS: What is the largest shortcoming of the refugee convention revealed by this controversy in your opinion?
TK: One problem with it is the lack of enforcement. When a country is clearly violating its obligations under the convention there is really very little that the UNHCR can do. The other problem is the vague nature of the commitment under the convention which basically allows Israel to interpret the convention very differently than basically all other western democracies and still pretend that it’s not violating the obligations.
YRIS: What do you think is the future of refugee law? Is it similar or vastly different to how it is now?
TK: I do think it needs to change. The category of refugee is too narrow. There are other people fleeing their countries because they can not stay in them and their reasons for doing so are not covered under the refugee convention, so I think it ought to be expanded. I also think a lot of the elements right now that are grounded in soft law, such as prohibitions on detention, should be grounded in legally binding norms more substantively.