ASSAF/lsrael AIDS Task Force Promoting equal rights for HIV-positive refugee asylum seekers in Israel

Norbert Coldfield


This chapter highlights a conundrum for an organization such as Healing Across the Divides. HATD’s mission is to measurably improve the health of marginalized Israelis and Palestinians. What to do about a population that is neither Israeli nor Palestinian? Such a population is not party to nor engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet members of these populations reside in Israel and are among the most marginalized, if not the most marginalized, people living in this region. For this reason, HATD is engaged with supporting community organizations that, in turn, work to assist the most vulnerable members of the already vulnerable African refugee asylum seekers (RAS) population. Our grants discussed in this chapter have gone to community-based initiatives that focus on those RAS with HIV, many of whom contracted the disease when they were victims of trafficking. This chapter starkly highlights the challenges of humanitarianism, as discussed in chapter 15. It offers introductory comments on the history of the RAS in Israel, followed by summaries of results (and the challenges in obtaining valid data) from four years of interventions with the RAS HIV population. It also summarizes the activities undertaken by the community groups on behalf of the RAS over these four years. The appendix provides a different type of data: six detailed case studies.

African Refugee Asylum Seekers (RAS) in general and in Israel

The 1951 Refugee Convention, of which Israel is a signatory, defines a refugee as someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”1 According to the most recent figures, approximately 30,000 asylum seekers live in Israel; of these, 92% are Eritrean and Sudanese.2 An asylum seeker is a person who has sought protection as a refugee but whose claim for refugee status has not yet been assessed. At its height, there were 70,000 RAS in Israel. Most of these have relocated to either Europe or Canada, with a very small number going to the United States. For a period of time, many RAS men were housed in detention centers (most in one called Holot) in the Negev desert in Southern Israel. As a consequence of a court decision, this was eventually closed down. For a twenty-four-hour period in 2018, the Israeli government negotiated an agreement with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to give refugee status to 16,000 RAS if the UNHCR would resettle the remainder in third countries.3 After intense right-wing pushback, the conservative government of Benjamin Netanyahu backtracked and began to take a harder line against the African RAS.

The State of Israel applies today a “nonreturn policy” or “nondeportation policy,” under which the vast majority of asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea are granted temporary stay permits that do not confer any rights.45 Through this policy, the government of Israel acknowledges the danger in these countries and does not deport asylum seekers to their countries of origin, especially to countries, such as Sudan and Eritrea, with significant well-documented evidence of widespread systematic torture and other ill treatment. However, the Israeli government continues to offer “voluntary repatriation” to third African countries, such as Rwanda. Very few RAS have accepted the offer.

Without legal status as a refugee, the asylum seekers in Israel are left without rights. Current Israeli policy denies all asylum seekers access to most services. Crucially, the Israeli National Health Insurance Law does not apply to asylum seekers, blocking access to public health services other than in times of medical emergency.

The limbo in which RAS exist leads many to suffer from anxiety, depression, and hopelessness. Their complicated visa status, employment insecurity, lack of social services, and lack of health insurance and access to care are only the tangible challenges asylum seekers experience. Beyond financial and physical pressures, many asylum seekers face a bleak outlook for their personal lives, especially single men whose prospects for achieving stability and establishing families are slim.

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