The Polarizing Effects of Asylum Advocacy: The Case of Physicians for Human Rights in Israel

Authors: Ilil Benjamin*, Johns Hopkins University
Topics: Human Rights, Immigration/Transnationalism, Migration
Keywords: Israel, asylum, refugees, human rights, aid, humanitarianism
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: Senate Room, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In the asylum policy world, forced migrants are generally presented as deserving of protection because they presumably flee in haste to save their lives, while economic migrants, however dire their own circumstances, are presumed to be moving by choice, not compulsion. However, in the spaces where humanitarian NGOs operate, the lines between economic and forced migration often blur. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is an Israeli medical NGO that runs a free medical clinic in Yaffo, serving primarily undocumented or semi-documented migrants from sub-Saharan. While the majority of them have fled persecution in Eritrea and ethnic violence in Sudan, a minority hail from other countries, for motives that contain elements of both poverty and duress. On a daily basis, most PHR medical providers consider all their patients equally deserving to remain and receive care. But as I show, based on fieldwork conducted in the region in 2011-2012, such nuanced views are frequently self-censored. PHR, wanting the Israeli government to offer undocumented migrants access to state-subsidized healthcare, lobbies the Israeli parliament to do so by invoking the 1951 UN convention relating to refugees, of which Israel is a signatory state. Economic migrants are strategically left out of the debate. The Israeli state counters, meanwhile, by painting asylum seekers as economic migrants in order to justify their continued exclusion from state-sponsored care, resulting in a stalemate. In this talk, I shall illustrate how aid workers rationalize the moral compromises they must make in order to engage in human rights advocacy.

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