By Hannah Belitz, J.D. ’17
I spent this January term interning at HIAS in Israel. HIAS is an international nonprofit that assists and protects refugees; it was founded in 1881 to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, and in the 2000s it expanded its resettlement work to include assistance to non-Jewish refugees throughout the world. The HIAS office in Israel assists refugees – primarily those from Eritrea and Sudan – in obtaining asylum and works to improve the asylum system in the country so that it adheres to international and domestic legal standards. Over the course of my three weeks at HIAS, I conducted legal research to support the asylum applications of HIAS clients, traveled to the Eritrean Women’s Community Center in South Tel Aviv to assist with interviews, and had the opportunity to attend a refugee status hearing.
The situation for refugees in Israel is particularly dire. Approximately 55,000 asylum-seekers currently live in Israel: roughly 36,000 from Eritrea, 15,000 from Sudan, and 4,000 from other African countries. Although the vast majority of them arrived primarily between the years 2005 and 2012, the Ministry of Interior (MOI) did not allow Sudanese and Eritreans to file individual asylum claims until 2013 – the reasoning being that they were protected under the “temporary group protection” afforded to Sudanese, Eritrean, and Congolese asylum seekers. Since 2013, when MOI began adjudicating asylum claims, asylum officers have assessed approximately 5,000 to 12,000 claims submitted by Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers. Of those, only seven Eritreans and one Sudanese have been granted refugee status. The overall rate of granting asylum is less than 1%. Internationally, Eritreans and Sudanese are granted asylum at a rate of approximately 80% and 30%, respectively.
In addition to filing asylum requests for clients in Israel, HIAS also works to resettle refugees in the United States. During my final week, lawyers from the HIAS office in Vienna came to conduct intakes with refugees who may be eligible to come to the United States under the U.S. refugee resettlement program. The resettlement program offers a final hope to refugees who face little chance of being granted asylum in Israel. However, now that President Trump has issued an executive order severely restricting the entry of refugees, the future of the resettlement program remains unclear. What is clear is that the need for both immigration attorneys and humane asylum policies – in the United States and in Israel – has never been more pressing.