The role of documents in the lives of Asylum-seekers

“The passport is the person's most precious organ”, wrote Berthold Brecht in his book “Refugee Conversations”. With that Brecht wished to depict on the one hand the helplessness of those fleeing political persecution during World War II, lacking appropriate or “correct” documents, and on the other hand the power of documents in the modern age with regards to the lives of human beings, their security and freedom.

This depiction of the passport is true mainly for those who escaped beyond the borders of their home country, but it is relevant more generally to life in the modern era, in which borders are delineated between nation states, and in which borders control the movement of people and goods. The passport was invented in the 20th century, following the creation of new social and political landscapes in Europe, which raised the need for mobilizing people across great distances on the one hand, and for controlling the movement of populations on the other hand. Between the two world wars, with the rise of dictatorial regimes in Europe, the role of the passport became key in creating the “wall of papers” that jailed citizens in their own states and prevented them leaving to others.


Terms such as “undocumented” or “without papers”, which are common in today’s western world, describe willing migrants and forced migrants, who lack any legal status. The definition of human beings on this basis, that is describing their essence according to documents and permits, teaches us about the political force of official documents in the modern world. The terms “illegal immigrants” or in Hebrew “illegal aliens” (which originates elsewhere), are also instructive as to the criminalization of various social groups, which include people struggling to earn a living and those who have fled danger and distress. In a world in which inequality is prevalent (economic and otherwise), it is preserved by identification, borders and documents.


For asylum seekers and other migrants who arrived in Israel, a lack of documents can risk their fragile status, and limit their already restricted options. Since asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea began arriving to Israel in relatively large numbers, and the issue was transferred from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to the Interior Ministry, they were given a temporary residence permit for several months based on their identity. Their identity was verified primarily through the presentation of documents such as passports or IDs. Here lies the paradox. Asylum seekers are by definition people fleeing their country of origin, passing through various hardships along the way, crossing borders without presenting documents and without a permit. They often leave without anything, or lose what they managed to take with them along their journey. Others, for various reasons, never had identifying documents such as a passport or an ID.


Since at the time the Ministry of Interior required asylum seekers to present documents in order to obtain a visa, the applicants made great efforts to retrieve original documents through family members, and sometimes with the help of international aid agencies. The authorities turned others to the embassy or Eritrea, in order that it may produce documents. This demand placed asylum seekers (both then and now) in a difficult predicament – turning to the embassy of their country means turning to the authority that persecutes them. Accordingly, the Eritrean embassy not only demands large sums of money (defined as taxes they owe since leaving the country), but also requires them to sign confessions and to provide information that might harm them and their families.


Furthermore, individual documents are necessary for reasons beyond empowering and defending oneself before the authorities. Under certain circumstances, documents might also harm the interest of the individual, so their absence may be advantageous. Dr. Yuval Livnat describes in his article “The Stranger who Refused to Identify” how a lack of identity and documents made it impossible for the authorities to deport a person that sought to remain in Israel for religious reasons, even at the price of imprisonment. The authorities that demand a person to turn to the authorities of his home country might use this information at a later stage to argue, for example, that this person is not at all persecuted. The state also uses the documentation, and mainly the biometric registration that goes along with it (which is viewed as less credible) as a way of monitoring, supervising and controlling asylum seekers. The applicants are completely dependent on the residency permit, which requires them to appear frequently before the Interior Ministry, waiting in long, frustrating and tiring lines (where they often reach the end of the day without having had the opportunity to renew their visa).


The sense of humiliation and helplessness in the process of renewing residency permits, which provide only very minimal rights in any case, led some asylum seekers to give up or “oppose” (in sociological terms) the regime they live under, and not to renew their residency permits. For example, one of the applicants who was called for an interview instead of being given a residency permit, after receiving several summons over a period of time, demonstratively tore up the subpoena in the Interior Ministry. Others decided not to turn any more to the Interior Ministry in order to try and renew their visa. In that manner, asylum seekers risked and endangered themselves even further, but were apparently rising up against the power of documents and the “fetishization” of papers, in a way that makes them objects that are not produced by people, but control them.


In this context, it is clear that a particularly vulnerable group is that of stateless persons. This group lacks documents and cannot produce them. The partitioning of different states to separate nation states based on ethnic and political conflicts, like that which occurred between Eritrea and Ethiopia during the 1990s, leads at times to the expulsions of populations from both sides, mass fleeing, and the formation of groups who end up lacking any civic status. For example, when I began my research following the arrival of refugees to Israel, I met a young man born and raised in Ethiopia to an Eritrean father and an Ethiopian mother. During the border conflict between the countries he was imprisoned and banished to Eritrea. In Eritrea his status was never set, and he ended up in prison once more, deported this time to Sudan. After arriving at Israel, the Interior Ministry refused to list him as an Eritrean since he was missing any identifying documents. Finally, the UNHCR registered him as Ethiopian. After a while during which we no longer were in touch, I came to learn that he had been imprisoned and finally deported from the country. I do not know where he is now.


Regrettably, although there are regulations for stateless persons in Israel (following a legal campaign by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel), this procedure does not address all of the problems faced by persons without citizenship. There are those left without protection, without a status and without “documents”. In a world in which mobility, social class, income and security are all derived from the availability of documents, people find different ways to exist without them. They build their lives with great efforts without them, struggling in various ways to obtain them, and sometimes even “lose” or obtain forged documents, only to secure their place in this world.


Written by Dr. Hadas Yaron, anthropologist and lecturer in the school of Government and Society at the Academic College of Tel Aviv – Yaffo. It is based on two of her articles:


"Your Papers or Your Life': The Significance of Documents in the Life Experiences of African Refugees in Israel" 2009


"You are Ethiopian Until Proven Otherwise: Contested Nationality, Ethnic Eritreans and Stateless Persons in Israel" 2013

The report was written for "The African Refugees Development" (ARDC) and "Hotline for Refugees and Migrants".