“Israel’s standards today are above those set forth in the Convention. ‘Our refugees are becoming citizens almost as they step off the boat, but we still have a large number of other refugees and we intend to treat them honestly and fairly as nationals in every respect…’”
– Dr. Jacob Robinson, Plenipotentiary for Israel, in the press release on Israel’s signing of the 1951 convention
Establishing a presence
UNHCR first established a presence in Israel in March 1976, opening a small ‘Honorary Correspondent’ office. Mrs. Zina Harman, a career Israeli Diplomat and former Knesset Member, was appointed UNHCR’s first Honorary Correspondent, a position she held until 1999. Her annual budget was a meager USD $2,000 and her two-person office in Jerusalem was provided by the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).
Based on its core mandate of ensuring the international protection of uprooted people worldwide, UNHCR’s priority area of work was focused on supporting and advising the government with respect to the establishment of national legal framework and institutional arrangements for the implementation of the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol.
Early non-Jewish refugee arrivals
On 10 June 1977, a year following UNHCR’s start of work in the country, an Israeli cargo ship in the South China Sea found a group of 66 Vietnamese huddled on a leaky boat and brought them to Israel where they received citizenship. Over the next two years, Israel took in approximately 300 more Vietnamese refugees and naturalized them. About half of this community is believed to remain in Israel today.
Sixteen years after the first group of Vietnamese refugees were brought in, Israel extended asylum to a group of 84 Bosnian Muslims who were settled at Kibbutz Beit Oren. Unlike the Vietnamese, however, nearly all left Israel in less than a year to join family members in EU countries or return to their homeland.
In both the Vietnamese and Bosnian cases, as well as the estimated 6,000 members of the South Lebanese Army and their families who sought refuge in Israel, UNHCR was not required to conduct assessment of their refugee claims. That was done by the Government on a prima facie basis, while UNHCR adjudicated individual asylum applications from other nationalities as diverse as Ethiopia, South Africa, Russia, Greece, Nicaragua, Hungary, Iran, Poland and others.
Transfer of responsibilities for asylum adjudication
In the late 1990s, the numbers of asylum-seekers in Israel started to rise steadily and the new development provided an impetus to the Government and UNHCR to embark on a constructive dialogue on how to create a national refugee status determination (RSD) procedure and better meet the protection and assistance needs of this population through their continued and strengthened collaboration and partnership. Under the leadership of its new Honorary Representative, Mr. Michael (Mickey) Bavly, UNHCR drew up a detailed roadmap for a gradual handover of responsibilities for refugee status determination to the Government.
“The Israeli people have a very personal understanding of what it means to be a refugee, you don’t need a real effort to persuade them. But what was needed was to persuade the Israeli government to take the action and not rely solely on the U.N. [to examine refugee claims].”
– Mr. Michael Bavly, Honorary Representative, UNHCR Israel, 1999-2008
Strengthening implementation of the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol would be the first step in improving protection of refugees and asylum-seekers. This would, in turn, require the adoption and implementation of national refugee legislation and procedures for the determination of refugee status and for the treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees in accordance with established international standards.
Obviously, the development of national legislation on refugees is a complex and lengthy process. But there are other important measures the Government could take to give immediate effect to the key principles and standards of international protection set out in the 1951 Convention. One such priority measure that UNHCR proposed to the Government was the establishment of a national refugee status determination authority. For an interim period until such authority is fully operational, UNHCR further offered to remain engaged in this vital task in a support function. Additionally, UNHCR proposed that the Government consider a special policy measure to address the immediate protection needs of groups of refugees who fled civil war in several countries in West Africa, namely, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Government thus introduced a temporary humanitarian protection regime for this group.
In 2002, the government established the National Refugee Status Granting Body (NSGB) as the central authority for evaluating refugee status recognitions recommended by UNHCR and advising the Minister of the Interior for a final decision. At the time, the number of asylum-seekers, excluding those who were accorded group humanitarian protection, was less than 1,000 persons. That started to steadily grow in 2006, reaching nearly 2,000 in 2007. That year, and with increased refugee status determination work alongside the National Status Granting Body, UNHCR opened an official Representation (replacing the “Honorary Correspondence Office) with its own office in Tel Aviv. Two years later, in 2009, the Government assumed full responsibility for asylum adjudication work to be carried out by the newly established Population, Immigration and Border Authority (PIBA) of the Ministry of Interior. By this point, there were at least 14,700 asylum-seekers in Israel, mainly Eritreans and Sudanese.
Present UNHCR Focus
From a team of two part-time workers and budget of USD $2,000 in its first year, the UNHCR Country Office for Israel has now expanded to over 20 local and international staff members and an annual budget of USD $3.0 million in funding. UNHCR’s population of concern in Israel has increased to over 56,477 adults and 8,500 children (data as of September 2020).
At present, UNHCR’s work in Israel primarily focuses on the following areas:
- Monitoring and promoting respect for refugee rights and the standards of treatment of asylum-seekers, particularly as regards access to asylum procedures, reception conditions and detention.
- Advocacy for influencing legislation affecting refugees and asylum-seekers by providing expert advice and comments on relevant draft laws or regulations to ensure compliance with international standards.
- Technical assistance, legal advice and other forms of support to assist the authorities to improve and strengthen their refugee status determination procedures and ensure quality decision-making.
- Advocacy and support for persons of concern to access essential services including health, education, child protection and welfare, with particular focus on persons with specific needs (victims of torture or trafficking, persons with disabilities, single parents, survivors of gender-based violence, LGBTI persons, HIV cases, etc.).
- Training of key stakeholders from the government and civil society on basic protection issues, including refugee rights, reception conditions for asylum-seekers, durable solutions, child protection, etc.
- Promoting lasting solutions to the problems of refugees by way of voluntary repatriation when conditions permit, local integration, or resettlement and other legal pathways.
- Engagement with training institutions, employers and the refugee community to provide refugees and asylum-seekers vocational training in green energy, agriculture, technology, and other sectors that could offer more dignified salaries and mobility whether within the country or internationally.
- Strengthening and broadening public information, awareness-raising, and partnerships.
In carrying out the above functions, UNHCR cooperates closely with the Government of Israel as its key partner in its mission to ensure the protection of refugees and asylum-seekers in accordance with international standards. Over the years, UNHCR has strengthened its partnership with various Government ministries, especially those of the Interior, Justice, Foreign Affairs, Welfare, Health and Education. UNHCR has also established constructive working relations and mutual co-operation with relevant Parliamentary committees, resident diplomatic missions, the media, etc.
UNHCR has also forged useful links with a number of local NGOs and other members of the civil society, including the following with which it has had funding-based partnership arrangements:
- African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) – Provides adult education and vocational training;
- Aid Organization for Asylum Seekers and Refugees (ASSAF) – Psycho-social counselling and support, youth programme, advocacy;
- HIAS – Pro-bono legal assistance and litigation;
- Hotline for Refugees and Migrants – Information for asylum-seekers and legal advice/representation, detention monitoring, advocacy;
- Israel Aids Task Force (IATF) – Community outreach, free testing and medication, mobile clinics;
- Kav LaOved – Support and advocacy for employment rights and work conditions;
- MESILA – Social counselling and assistance for children/parents, support to community childcare arrangements, reproductive health counselling, etc.;
- Physicians for Human Rights Israel (PHRI) – Advocacy for access to the national health care scheme and volunteer-based health service.
Documents and Resources
**Publications by non-UNHCR authors are not necessarily endorsed by or reflective of the stance of UNHCR
- UNHCR Israel Fact Sheet
- Ordered disorder: African asylum seekers in Israel and discursive challenges to an emerging refugee regime (2011)
- A Promised Land for Refugees? Asylum and Migration in Israel, New Issues in Refugee Research (2009)
- Israel – A Safe Haven? Problems in the Treatment Offered by the State of Israel to Refugees and Asylum Seekers (Tel Aviv University Buchmann Faculty of Law and Physicians for Human Rights, 2003)**
- Refugee or Migrant: Word Choice Matters – English | Hebrew