Must Israel Accept Syrian Refugees?

Israel stands alone as the only country bordering Syria that has not accepted a single Syrian refugee, at least for now. This is remarkable, and an apparent failure of international burden sharing. As of March 31, Jordan hosted approximately 585,000 Syrian refugees. Turkey had received more than 640,000. Lebanon hosted nearly 1 million. Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, Israel has provided medical care to several hundred Syrians, but it does not let them stay. No doubt, Israel has avoided this burden in part because its border (technically a cease-fire line) with Syria is one of the most fortified and tense in the world. But that has not prevented refugee flows in other conflicts, such as when Iraqis fled to Iran in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War.

For Israel, the figure of zero Syrian refugees is a deliberate policy. In January 2014, a seventeen-year-old Syrian girl formally applied for asylum and was refused. She appealed to Israel’s High Court of Justice but the case was resolved confidentially, with a court-imposed gag order. Media reports indicated that she was forced to leave Israel, but it is not clear whether that meant return to Syria or to a third country.

Long before Syrians took to the streets against Bashar al-Assad, Israel’s policy was to refuse asylum to “subjects of enemy or hostile states.” Even if Israel never receives the kind of refugee influx seen by Syria’s other neighbors, this policy deserves new legal scrutiny. Although the general Israeli policy is to seek resettlement to other countries for “enemy national” refugees of al nationalities globally. In mid-July, the UN counted the total number of Syrian refugees worldwide at 2,867,672.

Perhaps knowing this reality, it is not clear that Israel authorities always wait for the hope of eventual resettlement before preventing Syrians from finding refuge. Some are permitted no further than a field hospital in the Golan Heights. But even those who are admitted to hospitals in Israel are not given free access to UNHCR officials, which would be a way for them to begin formal applications for asylum. When their medical treatment is complete, the Israeli military takes them back to Syria.