An estimated 53,000 African migrants have arrived in Israel between 2006 and the beginning of 2014. Israel, which took over reviewing asylum claims from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 2002, has been widely criticized for its treatment of them. Recently, however, the government has been attempting to reform its stance towards migrants. Will it be enough?
The Israel-Egypt Border
Even the US State Department, usually one of the most vocal supporters of Israel, has criticised the handling of refugees in the past. In a 2012 report they outlined their issues with Israel’s process, including the way officials referred to migrants as ‘infiltrators’ and compared them to cancer, the regulations that allowed authorities to reject applications without appeal, and the construction of a barrier along the border with Egypt. This last point led to a widely-condemned incident in September 2012, in which African migrants were trapped at the border for over a week.
It is not just the international community who has been protesting the treatment of African migrants in Israel. The migrants themselves took to the streets of Tel Aviv this past January to demand the right to work legally, to call for their asylum bids to be processed, and to protest a law that allows illegal immigrants to be detained for a year without trial. For a lot of these migrants, especially ones from Eritrea and Sudan, returning to their troubled home countries is not an option, so their only avenue is to spend time in detention in Israel. In a separate but related protest, women and children marched to demonstrate their fear that the Israeli government is attempting to force them out of their homes and to send them to the Holot detention centre in the Negev Desert to be held indefinitely. The UNHCR has accused the Israeli government of following a policy that “creates fear and chaos amongst asylum seekers” in a way that could be in violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
The Israeli government has lately been attempting to make migrants leave Israel ‘voluntarily’ by enforcing laws that prevent them from working legally as well as offering them sums of money if they agree to leave Israel. Though most migrants cannot leave Israel safely, the government still actively pursues this policy.
Protest for refugees, Tel Aviv, Israel, 2009
Following a report by Human Rights Watch published in early September which criticized the way Israel has handled cases of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers held in the Holot Residency Centre, the Israeli High Court took matters into its own hands. Though the government insists that the centre is legal and not a ‘detention centre,’ many others have refuted these claims. The centre, located in the Negev Desert, holds thousands of migrants and asylum seekers who are required to check in at the centre three times a day and stay inside during the night, making it impossible for them to leave for extended periods or hold jobs. On September 22, the High Court of Justice ruled that the 2009 law that established Holot was illegal and therefore void and that the Israeli government had 90 days to either shut down the facility or change the framework of the policy. Ever since, the government has been attempting to come to an agreement so that Holot would not have to close.
The reaction to the High Court’s decision has been mixed, with some right-wing Knesset members criticizing the decision because they believe that the infiltrator law was crucial in keeping out unwanted migrants. Human rights groups, however, have celebrated the end of the law. Though the state argues that these migrants are only coming to Israel for the economic benefits, human rights groups have long maintained that most migrants are actually asylum seekers who cannot be returned to their homelands.
An amendment to the law formed by the government and distributed in early November placed a new 20-month limit on the amount of time a migrant could be detained in Holot. However, this decision was not widely supported. Former Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar was one member of the government who didn’t agree with the decision, as he had pushed for a minimum term of two years in Holot for asylum seekers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was forced to step in to help find a middle ground.
The Knesset Interior and Environment Committee Chair Miri Regev vowed not to let the Holot detention centre
close when required to do so by the High Court, saying that the government would come up with new laws to govern the centre. However, if they are not able to push through the bill detaining asylum seekers for a maximum of 20 months, the detention centre will close on December 22. This would be a momentous event for African refugees entering the country, though there is still a lot to be done before African migrants are treated equally within Israel.
Israel seems to be headed on the right path in the choice between limiting detention times or potentially shutting down the Holot detention centre, though this could be short-lived progress. Hopefully, the Israeli government will grant more rights to migrants and shut down detention centres in the near future. Based on the current rhetoric, which refers to asylum seekers as ‘infiltrators’ and compares them to cancer, this change seems unlikely to happen soon. However, many of these asylum seekers can’t wait any longer in a state that is trying its best to make them go home.