Hundreds of African migrants and human rights activists marched through the streets of Tel Aviv on 21 December to protest the Israeli government’s policy of detaining irregular migrants, the majority of them asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan.
The protest came less than a week after a demonstration in Jerusalem by about 150 asylum seekers who had walked out of a new so-called open facility in Israel’s southern Negev desert, known as Holot. The protestors hoped to meet with Minister of the Interior Gideon Sa'ar, an avid supporter of Israel’s strict “anti-infiltration” measures, but were arrested soon after reaching Jerusalem.
Holot was opened in response to a September 2013 Supreme Court ruling, which struck down an amendment to Israel’s anti-infiltration law allowing the detention of irregular migrants for up to three years without trial.
The High Court ordered that over 1,700 asylum seekers being held at the Sa'aronim detention centre in the Ketziot prison, also in the Negev desert, should be released over a three-month period, providing they posed no threat.
Shortly before the three-month period ended on 14 December, the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) passed a new amendment to the anti-infiltration law, shortening the period of time migrants can be detained to one year in an open facility. Two days after the act was passed, the 500 remaining migrants at Sa'aronim were transferred to Holot.
The protesters in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv claimed that Holot was far from open. Migrants kept there are required to check in with authorities three times a day, are locked in at night, and banned from working outside the facility. Those who fail to report to authorities on time or those caught working outside the facility can be penalized with a three-month stay in a closed facility.
Holot can house 3,300 migrants and is set to expand, eventually reaching a capacity of between 6,000 and 9,000 people, according to Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Israel's Public Security Minister.
The Israeli daily, Haaretz, reported on 22 December that the Immigration and Population Authority intends to start issuing summonses to African migrants living in cities, requiring them to report to the Holot centre within 30 days. The new legislation stipulates that those who fail to report to the facility can be arrested.
A community volunteer who assists migrant families and did not wish to be named told IRIN that many of the families she works with are fearful of being sent to the new centre. "I call them whenever I see police in their neighbourhoods, warn them not to go outside and at the same time I try to calm them down because I know the effect this has had on them, especially on the children.”
Tsfay, an Eritrean asylum seeker who works as a dish washer in a Tel Aviv café, spent several months in the Sa'aronim detention centre two years ago and is anxious about the possibility of being returned to detention. "I try not to stand out. I keep to the kitchen, go home - that's it. We've been talking about the possibility of being taken to the [new] detention centre. I heard the minister [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] say we have to be there or go back to our country, and they offer us money to leave… but I cannot go back to my country, it is not a choice for me. I know some people who think of leaving, but I don't know where they thing of going."
The Israeli government recently increased the amount it is offering to migrants as an incentive to leave the country voluntarily from $1,500 to $3,500.
On 15 December several human rights organizations filed a petition with the High Court of Justice, seeking to nullify the new amendment to the anti-infiltration act on the basis that it does not abide by the principles set forth in the Court's September decision.
The petition alleged that rather than seeking more humane solutions to the refugee issue as the Court directed, the government delayed releasing migrants from detention for as long as possible, and then rushed the new legislation through the Knesset. The new amendment's one-year administrative detention provision ignores the court's ruling on the unconstitutionality of imprisoning people from countries like Eritrea who, according to international refugee law, cannot be deported due to the likelihood that they would be subjected to persecution upon their return.
The amendment also allows for the indefinite detention of asylum seekers who cannot be deported, a provision that, according to human rights groups, is designed to leave migrants with little choice but to "voluntarily" repatriate, even if it means endangering their lives.
The petition further argued that deterrence, the ostensible purpose of the legislation, was no longer necessary. Since Israel completed construction of a fence along its previously porous border with Egypt at the beginning of 2013, only a handful of migrants had entered the country irregularly, down from 10,440 in 2012 .
The petitioners are seeking an urgent hearing and an injunction to stop the transfer of asylum seekers to the Holot facility.
According to Israel’s immigration authority, there are 55,000 African asylum seekers residing in Israel. Most come from Eritrea and Sudan, and entered Israel via its border with Egypt over the past eight years.