By: Elizabeth Gettinger, J.D. ’15
I arrived in Tel Aviv in early January knowing very little about Israeli asylum law but with some sense that the issue was politically divisive. My fellow HLS students and I spent our first few days at the Clinic for Migrants’ Rights at the College of Law and Business learning the basics of Israeli asylum law, and I quickly realized that all I had learned in the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic would be little help in understanding the very different Israeli system. Although Israel helped draft the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention, the confusing rules governing the country’s own asylum procedures seem to be changed at random and applied arbitrarily, leaving thousands of asylum seekers in a sort of legal limbo. Many are held in detention, and only a fraction are ever officially granted refugee status.
During the weeks we spent working on research projects for the clinic, immigrants from mostly African nations including Sudan and Eritrea organized massive demonstrations in Tel Aviv to protest for their rights as asylum seekers. Many businesses throughout the city that employ asylum seekers organized a celebration and show of solidarity. But with misinformation and anti-immigrant rhetoric from the government and others, public opinion remains strongly in opposition to asylum seekers.
We were lucky enough to travel around Israel on weekends, seeing many of the country’s incredible sites. I visited the Western Wall during Shabbat, walked the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and climbed the Temple Mount to view the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque. These holy places left me with the feeling that there might be something at stake in Israel and in its seemingly intractable asylum debate that I could never fully comprehend, at least not in my three-week winter term.
One the most eye-opening experiences for me was touring South Tel Aviv, where most of the asylum seekers live in cramped conditions. We spoke with a handful of people who had fled their home countries to escape persecution and took harrowing journeys through deserts and hostile territories in search of temporary security. They all expressed a desire to return once it was safe at home but feared for their lives if forced to return immediately. And I learned there actually is something at stake here that anyone can comprehend: a desire to find refuge, live free from fear, and provide for one’s family. I returned home hopeful that as asylum seekers and their advocates organize and continue to spread this message, real progress might be possible.