Refugees in Israel have worst treatment in western world UPDATE

December 18, 2013
Sarah Benton

First four photos from ActiveStills.
Then a news update on the fate of the marchers, then these items:

1) AFP: African immigrants protest detention in Israeli facility;
2) Telegraph: Israeli to open migrant ‘detention centre’;
3) Al Jazeera: Israel violates international norms over African refugees, David Sheen makes the point;
4) JPost: African migrants leave open detention facility, now marching to Jerusalem, hostile report;
5) JKD blog: Asylum seekers fear worse to come in Israel, Gaza-based Jillian Kestler d’Amours;
6) Notes and links: Amnesty and ACRI positions.

African Asylum seekers rest during a protest march Be’er Sheva to Jerusalem on December 16, 2013 after they fled a detention centre in the south where they were being held. A Christian nun appears to be treating their feet.

Walking along the road to Jerusalem. The distance by road from Beersheba is given as between 80km and 125 km depending on what chart you use and, presumably, what roads.

Muffled up on the road; the weather is unusually cold this year.

Resting beside the road on their long march.

News Update:Police bust protesting Africans in Jerusalem, send them back to Negev detention center

Some 70% of the migrants sent to the new ‘open facility’ left it and made their way to Jerusalem to Israel’s protest detention policy.

By Barak Ravid and Ilan Lior, Ha’aretz
December 17, 2013

A large contingent of police on Tuesday forcefully arrested and sent back into detention the roughly 150 African migrants who had marched out of a Negev detention center and come to the Knesset to protest. The Africans were either bussed back to the Holot detention facility or to Saharonim prison, depending on how many days they’d been free.

The demonstrators left Holot earlier this week and marched to the community of Nahshon, where they spent Monday night. At 9 A.M. Tuesday they made their way to the capital on buses paid for by human rights organizations. The demonstrators marched from the Prime Minister’s Office to the Knesset and demonstrated there, surrounded by a large police force. MKs Michal Rozin (Meretz) and Dov Khenin (Hadash) invited the migrants to attend a Knesset debate, but the police blocked them from entering.

At around 3 P.M. the police and inspectors from the Population, Immigration and Borders Authority began to forcibly break up the demonstration, reportedly on the orders of Interior Minister Gideon Saar. The demonstrators were dragged back onto the buses, with some of them yelling, “No more jail,” and “Freedom.” At first some migrants with valid visas were also forced onto the buses, but they were soon released. The authority said that migrants who had been absent from Holot for 48 hours or more would be sent back to Saharonim, while those who had left within the previous two days would be returned to Holot.

“The violent dispersal was shameful and unnecessary,” said Rozin, who chairs the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers. “There was no need to stop them so violently, with 10 policemen for every asylum-seeker.” MK Ilan Gilon, also of Meretz, echoed her remarks. “Every person with a conscience has to participate in this march,” he said. “We came to reduce and document the violence that the immigration authority is using against asylum seekers and social activists. They can’t play dumb and say it didn’t happen.”

Yossi Edelstein, head of the authority’s Enforcement and Foreigners Administration, blamed the human rights activists for provoking things. He said the activists had incited the migrants and encouraged them to demonstrate and resist being returned to Holot.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the issue during a Border Police ceremony on Tuesday. “We are determined to enforce the law,” he said. “And this also applies to illegal work infiltrators. The infiltrators who were moved to the special facility erected for them can remain there, or go back to their countries.”

During the demonstration, the Africans called on the state to evaluate their requests for asylum, grant them protection and not detain them again.

They carried signs reading, “I didn’t choose to be a refugee” and “The Holot facility is a jail.” Demonstrating with them were about 50 migrants who are not housed at Holot, and human rights activists. Holot inmates can come and go during the day, but must check in three times a day and return by dark, when the facility locks down.

African immigrants protest detention in Israeli facility

By Agence France-Presse/ The Raw Story
December 17, 2013

Nearly 200 African asylum seekers who entered Israel illegally demonstrated Tuesday in Jerusalem against being housed at a new open facility they walked out of two days earlier.

The men had left the Holot facility in southern Israel on Sunday night and made their way to the city on foot and by bus.

Holding banners reading “we are refugees not criminals” and “walk for freedom and humanity,” they marched from the prime minister’s office to the nearby parliament, accompanied by dozens of Israeli human rights activists.

The demonstrators, who would be allowed to work and have social benefits if they held refugee status, accused the government of “racism.”

“Many people are suffering from the racism of the right(-wing) government of Israel,” Walidin Sleiman, from Sudan, told AFP.

Sleiman added that if Israel did not want to give them rights then they should be allowed to go somewhere else.

Michal Roisin, a lawmaker from the left-wing Meretz party, said “as long as there is no place that can receive them — they can’t go back to their homelands — we must ensure their rights.”

Activist Moran Mekamel, of the “Students for Refugees” group, said each case should be examined to determine “whether they qualify as asylum seekers,” adding that “the facility they’ve been kept in is nothing short of a prison.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told parliament Tuesday that “the infiltrators who were transferred to the special facility can be in it, or return to their countries.”

Police broke up the protest outside parliament, a spokesman said, noting that “some 180 people were transferred to buses awaiting them after an illegal protest.”

An AFP correspondent said police used force to disperse the demonstrators, at least two of whom needed medical care.

The sprawling detention facility only began operating on Thursday, when 484 illegal immigrants from Africa were taken there, the Israel Prisons Service said.

It is open during the day but inmates must return for a night lockdown.

Under legislation passed on December 10, illegal immigrants entering Israel can be held for up to a year without trail.

It was the latest in a series of measures aimed at cracking down on close to 60,000 illegal immigrants from Africa, whom Israel says pose a threat to the state’s Jewish character.

The construction of a high-tech fence along the border with Egypt was recently completed.

The new law amends earlier legislation which allowed for immigrants to be held for up to three years without trial, but which was overturned by the Supreme Court in September.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and other groups have already filed a petition against the new law.

Israeli to open migrant ‘detention centre’

A new open facility under construction in the Negev Desert for illegal African migrants in Israel is a de facto prison designed to force them into leaving, activists say Photo: EPA

By Robert Tait, Telegraph
December 12, 2013

Israel has begun transferring around 500 African migrants to an isolated new “open facility” in the Negev Desert that human rights groups have condemned as an all-purpose jail that will be used to detain refugees indefinitely.

The prison service took control of the centre from the defence ministry just two days after the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, passed an amendment to draconian new legislation that intensifies an official clampdown on illegal “infiltrators”.

The new detention centre in the Negev for African refugees. The plan is to expand it to “accommodate” 9,000 refugees, sleeping 10 to a room.

The new facility has the capacity to accommodate 1,000 people – to be housed 10 to a room – but is expected to rise to 3,300 over the next two months.

Yitzhak Ahronovitch, Israel’s public security minister, said there were plans to expand its numbers to 6,000 or even 9,000 in the longer term.

The first to be transferred were inmates from the nearby Saharonim detention centre, who were said to be Israel’s longest-term illegal migrants.

The facility has been established after Israel’s supreme court struck down legislation in September that would have enabled the detention of migrants for up to three years without trial. This week’s amendment reduced the detention period to one year.

But campaigners say the amended provisions are actually worse because of the onerous regime that will preside over the supposedly open centre.

Although they are technically free to leave, residents will be required to register three times a day and will be banned from working, although they will receive £87 a month “pocket money”. They will be forbidden to leave between 10pm and 6am.

“This is not an open facility it’s really a jail for all purposes,” said Anat Ovadia, spokesman for the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, a legal advice centre. “The new law is worse than the one the supreme court cancelled because it puts refugees and asylum-seekers in this facility for an unlimited time.

“They can go out during the day but only for very short periods because of the need to register three times. This facility is really close to the desert and to get to any major city is a four-hour drive in public transport.

“Once they have transferred people from Saharonim, we don’t know what the parameters are – we don’t know if they are going to catch people in the street and start sending them. Many refugees in Israel are very scared. They don’t know what’s going on and we can’t explain it to them.”

A coalition of human rights groups, including Amnesty International, condemned this week’s amendment paving the way for the new facility as “put[ting] Israeli democracy to shame”. ” These amendments are in contempt of the [Supreme] Court and weaken the rule of law in Israel,” the statement added.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet last month approved a catalogue of measures aimed at encouraging Israel’s 53,000 illegal migrants to return to their countries of origin. The steps included raising the financial inducement to leave from £916 to £2,400.

Campaigners say the migrants, mainly from Sudan and Eritrea, fear for their lives if they are forced to return home.
Mr Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has said Israel’s character as a Jewish state is being jeopardised by the influx of “infiltrators” – a term that campaigners say is politically loaded because it was originally used to describe Palestinian militants who entered Israel to carry out attacks in the 1950s.

In January, the government announced that the number of migrants crossing into Israel from Egypt had dropped to zero for the first time since 2006 after the completion of a 150-mile fence on the frontier with the Sinai peninsula, which was previously used as a transit point.

Some Right-wing politicians have drawn accusations of racism over their comments on African migrants. Miri Regev, a parliamentarian in Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party, provoked outrage after referring to them as “a cancer in our body” at a 2012 demonstration in a Tel Aviv neighbourhood with a large African population.

Israel violates international norms over African refugees

By David Sheen, Al Jazeera
December 17, 2013

Today Israeli immigration officers forcibly removed more than 200 African asylum seekers from outside the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, who showed up to protest their forced detention. The protesters, refugees from east Africa, had marched from an indefinite-detention facility in the Negev Desert, a two-day journey by foot. They will reportedly be jailed for up to three months before being returned to detention.

Tensions began on December 10, when the Knesset passed an amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law, which authorized the detention without trial of approximately 55,000 Africans currently living in Israel. On Dec. 12, Israeli prison officials began transferring Africans from the Saharonim prison to the brand-new Holot facility, which is still under construction only a few hundred meters away in southern Israel. Once the first 1,000 beds are filled with Africans from Saharonim, the government plans to move another 2,000 Africans now in Tel Aviv to the detention center.

Last week’s amendment was rushed through committee to replace the January 2012 amendment that authorized the incarceration of asylum seekers for up to three years. In September, Israel’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the legislation violated Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws. In order to avoid another judicial rebuke, the government is contending that the newly built detention facilities are not jails because they permit two daytime furloughs of a few hours each.

After only one weekend at the new facility, many of the asylum seekers who were transferred did not see it the same way. On Dec. 15, the African migrants left the complex and set off toward Jerusalem to demand freedom and refugee rights. They said there are no significant differences between the old jail and the new one. Of those who remained behind bars, most have gone on a hunger strike.

The asylum seekers’ demands — to have their applications for refugee status considered and to be allowed to live freely without major restrictions while they are under review — are supported by international law. But Israel wants them all gone, regardless of the persecution they experienced before entering the country and their stated fear of being returned to their countries of origin, because they are not Jews.

The Israeli government has shown itself willing to make a mockery of international agreements and to mistreat long-suffering refugees whose only crime is not being born Jewish. If the world accepts the Israeli government’s demand that the state have a Jewish ethno-religious character, they will enable Israel’s flouting of international norms and green-lighting all of these abuses as well as the many more that will inevitably follow.

Roots of the crisis

The detention of the Africans on its soil was not the government’s preferred solution. As the high court deliberated about what to do with the migrants, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed an envoy to negotiate with a number of African countries, hoping to persuade them to take in the asylum seekers in exchange for money, agricultural technology, weapons and military training. To Netanyahu’s chagrin, no African nation agreed to the terms.

By forbidding most asylum seekers to work and criminalizing wiring money out of the country, the government hoped that migrants who arrived to make money more easily would give up and go home. By imprisoning asylum seekers who had not been convicted of crimes, the government sought to persuade the Africans to accept the state’s offer of $1,500 upon release if they leave the country.

The U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) protested the government’s carrot-and-stick offer to asylum seekers who were sitting in Israeli jails. Then–UNHCR head William Tall blasted the secret deal, saying repatriation from prison “can’t be considered voluntary by any criterion. It is explicitly not voluntary return.” He added that most Africans in Israel “don’t receive full access to the refugee apparatus, and when there’s no access to the refugee apparatus that can lead to their release, then there is no voluntary return.”

So far, about 1,500 asylum seekers have left the country in this manner. The government now hopes that others will follow after it increased the fee for self-deporting to $3,500 last month. Unless the detention center is expanded — there are no plans to do so at present — its maximum capacity is only about 10,000 people. Even if every bed in the facility were filled, that would leave more than 40,000 asylum seekers living among Israelis.

These asylum seekers from Africa constitute the first large group of immigrants to Israel who are not Jews.
International obligations

A careful analysis of the asylum crisis shows that Israel is not meeting its international obligations in the treatment of refugees.

About 85 percent of the asylum seekers in Israel are from Eritrea and Sudan, two countries with human-rights records so abominable that even the Israeli government is loath to force those who fled to return. The other 15 percent arrive from African countries further afield, such as the Congo and the Central African Republic. But of the African asylum seekers living in Israel, only a tiny fraction, less than 0.2 percent, have received refugee status.

In every one of these countries, there exist serious threats to physical safety and political freedom. Not every person who hails from these countries is automatically accepted as a refugee, however. State signatories to the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees — 145 countries, including Israel — may review each applicant’s case on an individual basis. However, the convention states that people cannot be punished for entering a country without permission if they did so to escape persecution in the country of origin and if they present themselves to the relevant authorities without delay. Thus Israel is violating international norms by detaining asylum seekers fleeing genuine persecution.

To enter Israel, refugees from eastern Africa pass through Egypt, the only African country that shares a border with Israel. Until last year, the desert border between the two nations was easily passable by foot. To cut off this method of entry, the Israeli government authorized the construction of a fence running the length of the border, and it was completed earlier this year. Since then, the number of asylum seekers entering the country has been reduced to a trickle.

The Egyptian passage has become a source of contention as well as anger and sadness. Israelis opposed to the arrival of asylum seekers claim that the Africans cannot be refugees in Israel, that they could have been refugees only if they had remained in Egypt. Advocates for the asylum seekers say that the migrants faced persecution in Egypt, noting that Egyptian forces attacked asylum seekers in Cairo in 2006 as they protested for refugee rights, killing dozens.

The Egyptian territory that abuts Israel, the Sinai Peninsula, has become treacherous territory for foreign Africans. In recent years, gangs that smuggled asylum seekers to the Israeli border for a fee realized that they could keep the foreign Africans against their will and threaten them with torture unless their families wired ransom payments. To ensure the continuation of this source of income — $600 million in the past four years, according to European External Policy Advisors, an NGO — after Israel’s fence was finished and the number of Africans passing through the Sinai dropped sharply, the gangs began to kidnap, torture and hold for ransom Africans who had no intention of trying to reach Israel in the first place.

Israel’s share

According to the UNHCR, 479,300 people around the world submitted refugee-status applications in 2012 — more than in any other year in the last decade. Of these applications, 355,500 were made in Europe, and 83,400 were made in the United States, the country that had the most applicants. Asylum seekers in Norway, Sweden and Switzerland account for more than 1 percent of those nations’ populations. In Israel, asylum seekers account for less than 0.5 to 1 percent of the population, similar to the figures for Greece, Belgium and Austria.

Ironically, developing nations host a far greater share of the world’s refugee population than do industrialized nations. For example, Iran and Pakistan each host over 1 million refugees, as do Jordan and Syria, two countries that border Israel. In Africa, Kenya, Chad and Ethiopia each host hundreds of thousands of refugees, and eight other African nations host over 100,000 refugees each.

As of last year, more than a quarter million people have fled Eritrea seeking asylum, and over half a million people have fled Sudan. Since 85 percent of the 55,000 African asylum seekers in Israel are from Eritrea or Sudan, that means the country has received 6 to 7 percent of the refugees who fled those two countries.

To be sure, their numbers are not insignificant, and their integration poses challenges for the government and for Israeli society. There are also about 84,000 foreign workers in Israel and some 93,000 tourists who have overstayed their visas.

Israel has absorbed millions of immigrants in the 65 years since since it was founded. Twenty-five years ago, it took in over a million people from the former Soviet Union as that empire was disintegrating. But in all those cases, the people it absorbed were Jews, loosely defined as having at least one Jewish grandparent.

Jewish people all over the world are encouraged by the government to immigrate to Israel, and they are offered attractive financial incentives to do so. As soon as they arrive in the country, they are automatically granted full citizenship, with all the benefits that entails and then some. These privileges follow from one of the first laws passed in Israel, the 1950 Law of Return.

The reason for the disparity in the treatment of Jewish immigrants and non-Jewish would-be immigrants runs to the very heart of Zionism.

Israeli society rejects asylum seekers because they’re new, they’re poor and they’re darker-skinned. But over the decades, successive waves of Jewish immigrants also encountered hostility from native Israelis because of the same prejudices. The asylum seekers from Africa constitute the first large group of immigrants to Israel who are not Jews. That is the real reason the government is trying to drive them out.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to account for the latest developments.

David Sheen is an independent journalist and film maker living in Dimona, Israel. Sheen began blogging when he first moved to Israel in 1999 and later went on to work as a reporter and editor at the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz. His full-length documentary on ecological architecture, “First Earth,” was translated into a dozen languages and published by PM Press in 2010. He is currently writing a book about African immigrants to Israel and the struggles they face.

African migrants leave open detention facility, now marching to Jerusalem

Dozens of illegal migrants refuse to return to detention facility in Negev, plan to protest their detention outside Supreme Court. African migrants march to Jerusalem from Negev detention centre.

By Ben Hartman, JPost
December 16, 2013

Over a hundred African migrants and asylum seekers were marching from Beersheba to Jerusalem on Monday morning, the day after they refused to return to the new open detention facility in the Negev.

The men made their way dozens of kilometers from the “Holot” (dunes) detention facility to the Beersheba Central Bus Station on Sunday night, where they refused to return to the facility. While some tried to make their way to Tel Aviv or elsewhere, others said they planned on going to Jerusalem, to protest their imprisonment outside the Supreme Court.

Cheska Katz, an activist for the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants said that the march is a continuation of the group’s protests over the weekend, when she said they went on hunger strike to protest their detention. On Sunday she said they decided to leave the facility and go to the Knesset and the Supreme Court, but called off the hunger strike on the way to Beersheba in the cold.

Katz said they remained at the bus station until 3am, at which point a local activist led them to a shelter where they could spend the night.

By mid-day the march had made its way almost to the community of Lehavim on highway 40, a little over a dozen kilometers from Beersheba.

The Population, Immigration, and Borders Authority (PIBA) said Monday that they “will work according to the law in dealing with the infiltrators that don’t return to the facility.”

They also blamed the activists helping the migrants for “violating the law by convincing the infiltrators not to return to the facility” and said that the migrants have decided not to go back not because of problems with the quality of the facility, but “because they want to work!”

The men who left the facility Sunday and those who left on Friday and Saturday were among the 483 detainees transferred from Saharonim prison to the “Holot” (dunes) facility over the weekend, after the new facility opened on Thursday.

On Sunday morning the Israel Prisons Service said that 54 detainees had left the facility over the weekend and had not returned, but by Sunday night it was clear the number was much higher, with activists and reporters stating that as many as 150 detainees were at the Beersheba Central Bus Station trying to make their way to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but that police wouldn’t let them board buses. They said that the men had left the facility on Sunday and had walked and hitchhiked and taken public transport to Beersheba, dozens of kilometers away.

The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants said the men had been jailed in Saharonim for between 18-24 months and they expected that they would be sent back soon, even as the new anti-infiltration law means that a detainee can be sent back only after 48 hours.

Last Tuesday, the Knesset approved an amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law (1954), which allows the state to hold people who entered Israel illegally for one year in the facility, which will be open in the daytime and closed at night.

The new Entry to Israel Bill came after the Supreme Court canceled its previous version in September, saying it was disproportionate. The legislation reduces the maximum amount of time a migrant can be kept in a closed detention facility, from three years to one.

The Holot facility has room for 1,000 people and in the coming months will be expanded to house up to 3,300.

There are around 53,000 African illegal migrants in the country, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, according to government figures.

The day before the new facility became active, PIBA said that its opening would be accompanied by an increased effort to prosecute Israelis employing illegal migrants, not only with fines but with indictments as well.

On November 24, the cabinet approved a plan to deal with illegal migration that is expected to cost as much as NIS 440 million. It includes greater incentives for migrants to leave Israel, including upping the “voluntary return” stipend from$1,500 to $3,500.

It will entail the creation of 550 government positions to handle the migrant issue, including employees of the new detention facility, and positions that will be created in the Public Security Ministry, PIBA and the Economy Ministry.

Asylum seekers fear worse to come in Israel

By JK D’Amours
December 17, 2013 [this was originally posted in Al Jazeera, before the long march to Jerusalem]

As the Israeli government rapidly moves forward with a legislative amendment that would create “open detention centres” to hold thousands of African asylum seekers, human rights groups say the changes mark a new low in Israel’s treatment of African migrants.

The proposed government amendment to Israel’s Prevention of Infiltration Law would shorten the mandatory prison terms for asylum seekers who have illegally entered Israel from three years to one year.

But the asylum seekers would then be forcibly transferred to so-called “open detention centres” that are locked down at night. They will be held there indefinitely, without charge or trial, until they can be repatriated to their home countries.

The Israeli cabinet approved the amendment on Sunday, before passing it onto discussions in a ministerial committee. It is expected to be brought before parliament members next week, before officially becoming law.

“The government officials are saying this is a more humanitarian response,” said Sara Robinson, a refugee campaigner at Amnesty International Israel. “But if you see these centres… [it’s] a place that has bars, that’s fenced in, in the middle of the desert. These open centres are just another version of detention centres.”

The first amendment to Israel’s Prevention of Infiltration Law was passed in January 2012, and allowed for the detention of African asylum seekers and their children for three years without charge or trial if they entered Israel illegally. The law itself originally dates back to 1954 as a way to stop Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes.

Under the 2012 amendment, asylum seekers coming from what Israel considers “enemy states” could be imprisoned indefinitely, and anyone that entered Israel illegally was immediately branded an “infiltrator”.

The government’s latest proposal comes after the Israeli High Court ruled on September 16 that holding asylum seekers in prison for three years or longer infringed on their right to liberty, and violated Israel’s basic law. The High Court gave the state 90 days to examine each imprisoned asylum seeker’s case, and release those that shouldn’t be detained.

Since then, some 330 African asylum seekers have been released from detention, Robinson said. “The refugee convention says these people should not be criminalised. The infiltration law does exactly that,” she said.

‘A prison for all purposes’

A few thousand African asylum seekers have been imprisoned under the anti-infiltration law since it was passed. Most were held in a special prison for refugees called Shaharonim, in Israel’s southern Negev desert.

Under the new amendment, asylum seekers who are currently imprisoned, and even those who aren’t, will be transferred to the so-called “open detention” facilities for indefinite periods of detention. The primary open facility, called Sadot, will be run by the Israel Prison Service and is located near Ketziot prison, in the sparse Negev desert.

“People can be sent there without trial. Any complaint from an employer or a neighbour or a cop could get them thrown into the open centre,” said Marc Grey, spokesperson for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).

“The court laid down a principle that imprisonment of people who cannot be deported… is a violation of their basic right to freedom. It also made a statement that imprisoning asylum seekers as a way of deterring [others from coming] is not an appropriate justification. Both those things are still true of the new amendment,” Grey explained.

According to a report in Israeli daily Haaretz, Sadot will accommodate up to 3,300 prisoners. The asylum seekers will be banned from working outside the facility, but the state will provide them with an allowance, health services and room and board.

The asylum seekers will be locked into the facility every night, and will have to check in with Israeli authorities there three times each day. The Sadot facility is far from any Israeli population centres.

Anat Ovadia, spokesperson for the Tel Aviv-based Hotline for Migrant Workers, told Al Jazeera the new facility isn’t really open, but is instead a “prison for all purposes”.

“[The asylum seekers] won’t be able to get out because they will have to register for roll call three times a day – morning, noon, and evening. The facilities will be established far away from any city or any place. There will be no good transportation. They won’t be able to get out [and go] anywhere,” Ovadia explained.

The Israeli Ministry of Interior didn’t respond to repeated Al Jazeera requests for comment in time for publication.

But, in advance of presenting the amendment to the cabinet, the state wrote: “This bill thus creates a suitable balance between the right of the State of Israel to defend its borders and prevent infiltration, and its obligation to act in a humanitarian manner toward anyone within its borders and protect the human rights due to every person.”

Israeli Interior Minister Gideon Saar also defended the legislation.

“We have one country – we will show determination in ensuring its future. In a previous Supreme Court ruling, there is a sentence that in my opinion has never been more correct: Democracy is not a recipe for suicide and human rights are not a platform for national ruin,” Saar said as he unveiled the proposal.

Israel is expected to set aside $123.5m to implement the new law. The Ministry of Defence is also involved in building the new detention facility, according to a report in Israel Hayom.

The same report states that 130 new jobs will be created, and $20.5m allocated to the Public Security Ministry, to beef up security in areas with high numbers of African refugees, “with a special emphasis on police in southern Tel Aviv”.

Refugee convention

While it signed onto the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, Israel has never formulated a clear policy to determine refugee status, and doesn’t officially process refugee claims. Since its creation in 1948, Israel has recognised fewer than 200 asylum seekers as refugees.

Today, estimates put the number of African refugees and asylum seekers in Israel at just over 54,000, with the majority coming from Sudan and Eritrea. Because their refugee status is never formally assessed, most refugees in Israel hold a “conditional release” visa, which must be renewed every three months and does not allow them to work.

African asylum seekers in Israel are denied access to healthcare, employment and social services, and are often forced into low-income jobs where exploitation is widespread.

In recent years, neighbourhoods in Israel with high concentrations of asylum seekers, such as South Tel Aviv, have been the site of anti-African rallies and violent attacks on asylum seekers and their businesses.

“There is no-one that can claim that he or she is safe in Israel. Everyone is now on the bridge. Everybody is afraid here. We are not secure,” Haile Mengistaab, the head of the Eritrean Community Committee in Israel, told Al Jazeera.

Mengistaab escaped dictatorship in his native Eritrea before arriving to Israel in 2010. After being held in Shaharonim detention centre for 23 days, he was released in Tel Aviv. He said while many refugees are concerned about being imprisoned under Israel’s changing laws, most are more focused on the challenges of daily life.

“Life is not simple in Israel. Life is not easy. I always [think] about how I can survive, how I can run my life on a day-to-day basis,” Mengistaab said.

Preserving ‘the Jewish state’

The Israeli government has openly declared the purpose of its policy on African asylum seekers: to deter the arrival of refugees at its borders, and deport the ones that already live in the country.
“I have the responsibility… to safeguard the Jewish and Zionist character of the country,” former Interior Minister Eli Yishai said last year, after calling African migrants an “existential threat” to Israel.

In July, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted of a 99.6 percent drop in the number of asylum seekers entering Israel in the first half of 2013: only 34 migrants reached Israel’s borders as opposed to 9,570 during the same period the previous year, the government said.

Netanyahu credited the fence being built along Israel’s southern border with Egypt, and the anti-infiltration law – which, he said, “blocked the possibility of infiltrators reaching Israel’s cities” – with the dramatic drop in numbers.

According to Orit Marom, advocacy coordinator at the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (ASSAF) in Tel Aviv, the government must improve the living conditions of the tens of thousands of asylum seekers already in Israel, rather than criminalise them.

“How [does] the government want to solve the issue of [more than] 50,000 asylum seekers living in Israel with no rights? This is the focus of the problem,” Marom told Al Jazeera.

“They see those people are an enemy and not as people that were forced to come here.”

Fear of imprisonment

Twenty-six-year-old Eritrean asylum seeker Dawit Demoz came to Israel in 2010. After surviving an arduous trek through the Egyptian Sinai, Demoz crossed the border into Israel, and was immediately held in Shaharonim prison for three months.

He first lived in a tent outside with 15 other refugees, and was then moved to a small prison cell where he stayed with ten other prisoners. “It was very small bed and it was very cold during the night, and hot during summer,” Demoz told Al Jazeera.

He said he was initially hopeful the High Court’s ruling in September would put an end to Israel’s imprisonment of asylum seekers. He has several friends who are still held in Shaharonim, he said, who were equally excited to be released.

That’s no longer the case.

“They thought that they would come out. Now, two months passed and nothing changed. It’s not a choice. It’s not humane to [have] two choices: to be in prison or to go back to Eritrea,” Demoz said.

“We are very scared now to be put back in prison. A prison is a prison, no matter how the situation inside there is.”

Notes and links

Amnesty International on the refugees escaping to Israel from Eritrea and Sudan
Refugees and Asylum-Seekers;
Why Israel’s right fears the non-Jewish refugees
Ha’aretz, October 24th, 2013: Last month, in a 9-0 ruling filled with moral outrage, Israel’s Supreme Court nullified an amendment to the Infiltrators Law that had allowed the government to imprison refugees for up to three years upon their illegal entrance to Israel….
Writing the court’s opinion, Justice Edna Arbel drew on Israel’s Declaration of Independence, Jewish texts and Jewish history to justify the need to act humanely toward desperate refugees….

© Copyright JFJFP 2022