Israel has been facing an asylum-seeker crisis in recent years. Between 2006 and 2012, the number of people seeking asylum in Israel climbed sharply and reached approximately 60,000 people in this time frame, most of whom were from Eritrea and Sudan. In Eritrea, a repressive dictatorship compels lengthy forced service to the government and persecutes religious minorities and political dissenters. Sudan has been dealing with ongoing conflict, both in the Darfur region and more recently with the newly independent South Sudan. People had not traditionally sought refuge in Israel due to the enormous difficulty in reaching it. They must cross the Sinai Peninsula, where many fall victim to starvation or to Bedouin smugglers who enslave travelers (Paz, 2011). However, this changed after refugees experienced brutality in Egypt by officials (Schwartz & Hetfield, 2013).
Israel is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, but it has granted refugee status to fewer than 200 people ever (Greenberg, 2012). Between 2009 and 2012, it granted asylum to only 16 people out of 7,000 applications (Kershner, 2012, June 18). It is more likely to grant group protection to people from countries such as Eritrea and Sudan; however, while this allows them to legally remain, they are not allowed to work or receive assistance from the state and therefore struggle to survive (Greenberg, 2012).
Due to the growing influx, there has been a backlash in Israel as some felt that these migrants were not truly asylum seekers but economic migrants. Prime Minister Netanyahu stated that they threatened “the Jewish character of Israel” (Kershner, 2012, June 18, ^9). In 2009, asylum seekers were forbidden to live and work in cities such as Tel Aviv and Eilat, where many had settled (“African asylum-seekers,” 2009; “Asylum-seekers detained,” 2009). The growing resentment of Israelis resulted in violent demonstrations, physical attacks, firebombs, and arson, as well as attempts by parents to keep the “infiltrator children” out of school (Greenberg, 2012; “Israel’s migration policy,” 2012; Kershner, 2012, June 4). In 2012, Israel updated its “Anti-infiltration Law” to state that any attempting to cross the border without proper paperwork would be labeled “infiltrators” and could be detained for up to 3 years. They also built a fence along their border with the Sinai and prohibited entry, even to those seeking asylum, and enforced it with use of tear gas and stun grenades (Greenberg, 2012; Human Rights Watch, 2012b). Eritreans were detained in prisons along the border and were not informed of their right to claim asylum or given the documents to be able to do so. Rather, multiple reports stated that they were being coerced to return to Eritrea or to Uganda (“Imprisoned Eritreans,” 2013). This violates Israel’s obligations as a signer of the refugee convention as petitioners must have their claims examined and cannot be summarily rejected as this violates the principle of non-refoulement (Human Rights Watch, 2012b).