Harvard Professor at UMD Talk: Israel Can Do Better on Refugees

Written by Anis Modi on . Posted in Community News

The state of Israel, formerly a model of immigrant integration, can and should do more to address the refugee crisis in the Middle East, said Harvard University Associate Professor Tally Kritzman-Amir during her talk at the University of Maryland, College Park on Sept. 6.


At the lecture, organized by the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies, Kritzman-Amir delved into Israel’s African refugee crisis — which has been a controversial issue in Israeli society and politics for over a decade. She argued that the Israeli government is applying discriminatory policies that do not respect the country’s past and current international obligations.

“The Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies is committed in both its classes and its public lectures to advancing non-partisan, factually solid discussion about all aspects of Israeli society and policies,” said Paul Scham, executive director of the Gildenhorn Institute and a research associate professor at the school. “Our recent event about Israeli policy toward refugees claiming political asylum in Israel is an example of this commitment.”

Abysmal Recognition Rates, Lopsided Legal System

“Israel has the ability to have an effective refugee system,” Kritzman-Amir told the gathering. “We have the capability, and have shown that we’re capable of integration. Experts from all over the world come to study immigrant integration in Israel.”

Among the policy changes Kritzman-Amir discussed, several have caused a stir in Israeli society, including the opening of detention centers in the south of Israel and the erection of a border wall on the Israeli-Egyptian border.

In total, statistics from Israel’s Ministry of the Interior presented by Kritzman-Amir show that there are more than 60,000 unauthorized immigrants in the country. This includes 35,000 immigrants and asylum seekers from African countries, most notably Sudan and Eritrea; about 10,000 children; and a separate population of approximately 17,000 immigrants from Eastern European countries such as Ukraine and Georgia.

The latter group is treated differently, she said, since they usually enter the country on a legal tourist visa, and can also be legally deported.

“The African population and other people that entered Israel in an undocumented way are labeled as infiltrators by the Ministry of the Interior,” she said. “I choose to refer to them as asylum seekers because I think the manner in which a person enters the country is not the most important thing in their immigration story, but the reason why they left their country of origin.”

According to the latest State Comptroller report, only 10 requests for refugee status have been granted out of over 55,000 such requests filed. Kritzman-Amir said she is aware of two more requests approved since the May 2018 report, bringing the total of requests granted to 12.

“The recognition rates in Israel are 0.09 percent,” she said.“Whereas in the rest of the Western world we’re talking about two-digit numbers.”

Indiscriminate Policies

In Kritzman-Amir’s experience working with refugee populations in Israel, “my feeling is that every discrepancy is held against them, whether it’s material to the case or not, and it doesn’t even have to even be a real discrepancy.”

In one such case, a person requested asylum in Israel since his country of origin, an Arab-Muslim state, persecuted members of the LGBTQ community like himself. Kritzman-Amir said the request was denied, with immigration authorities claiming that the country in question does not persecute homosexuals based on the fact that Elton John once performed there.

Kritzman-Amir also said that the Israeli government has created a web of interlocking mechanisms meant to exclude these immigrants from society and encourage them to leave, while intimidating those who might seek shelter there. And it appears to be working: In 2011, the height of unauthorized immigration to Israel, Israeli authorities counted over 17,000 new entries; over the past three years, there have been only 134 new asylum seekers registered in the country.

By Anis Modi


Anis Modi is a staff reporter for Kol HaBirah. Born and raised in Israel, he currently writes for several DC-based publications while pursuing his master’s degree at American University.