For the World Day of Migrants and Refugees – 19 January
By Oliver Maksan, ACN International
Adapted by AB Griffin, ACN Canada
A high-ranking representative of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem has called for solidarity with refugees in Israel and criticised the government’s treatment of them. Father David Neuhaus S.J., Vicar of the Latin Patriarch for the Hebrew-speaking Catholics and responsible for the pastoral care of migrants in Israel, told the international pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) in Jerusalem on Monday: “Our position is that of Pope Francis. In a message for the World Day of Migrants, he said that we must stop seeing migration as a danger to society, but as a gift. Here in Israel, some politicians and media use very wounding language and describe asylum seekers in blanket fashion as infiltrators. But we must appreciate that these are people who need our help, because they fled to save their lives. We must treat them as human beings, not criminalise them in advance.”
The background to Father Neuhaus’s remarks is the latest protest by migrants against the Israeli asylum legislation and its practice in the handling of asylum applications. In recent days, thousands have demonstrated in Tel Aviv and in front of the Parliament in Jerusalem. The Israeli Parliament recently passed an amendment to the so-called Anti-Infiltration Act. According to this, migrants who have entered Israel illegally and cannot be expelled immediately are held in open reception camps. In December, the authorities began to deport the first groups of persons to a camp in the Negev Desert. In a rare statement, the Jerusalem-based representative of the United Nations Refugee Agency expressed massive criticism of the new legislation and practice. Israel is bound by the UN Refugee Convention, he pointed out. According to this, the internment of asylum seekers is only permitted as a last resort. Last December, numerous human rights organisations went to court to object to the new legislation. An application for the suspension of the amended Anti-Infiltration Act was then rejected by the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the review procedure for its constitutional conformity is still pending.
53,000 seek asylum in Israel
Father Neuhaus: “For the majority of refugees, Israel was not their first choice. They would have preferred to seek asylum in Europe. But since Europe has closed its borders to refugees from Africa, they have come to Israel. During their flight, many have had terrifying experiences of human trafficking and torture and are traumatised. But meanwhile, Israel has also built a fence so that practically no more refugees can enter the country.” Father Neuhaus further emphasised that the Israeli government naturally has the right to differentiate between asylum seekers and economic migrants seeking work. “But this is not what happens. The asylum seekers are not classified individually on the basis of their situation, but treated in a blanket way. For the majority, no investigation has yet taken place to discover if they have a right of asylum as refugees.” Neuhaus further criticized the fact that applications for asylum that have been submitted are processed slowly and are only successful in a few cases.
There are currently a total of some 53,000 asylum seekers in Israel. Most of these come from Eritrea and Sudan. Some 40,000 are Christians, mostly from Orthodox faiths. The rest are Muslims, mainly from the Darfur Region in Sudan. Only a few thousand are Catholics. According to Father Neuhaus there are no precise figures. A few months ago, at the request of the Latin Patriarchate, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Ethiopia sent an Ethiopian Catholic clergyman to Israel for the pastoral care of these persons. The Catholic Church in the Holy Land is also working together with other organisations to improve the humanitarian situation of the asylum seekers. The focus here is especially on health provision. The Church is also making efforts to teach the Catechism to the asylum seekers’ children.
The charity ACN has been supporting pastoral work with migrants in Israel and the work of Father Neuhaus for many year.