TEL AVIV, 10 January 2012 (IRIN) - Following a heated public debate, the Israeli cabinet passed on 9 January a tough new law intended to deter the entry of what the government calls “illegal migrants” or “infiltrators”.
The “Law to Prevent Infiltration” allows for the detention for up to three years - without trial - of anyone who crosses the border without a permit, including families and minors. Anyone convicted of helping them once they enter, including aid workers, can be jailed for up to 15 years, according to the new law.
“Its entire purpose is to deter refugees from entering Israel,” the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) said in a statement, which describes the law as “draconian and immoral”. “The law blatantly disregards Israel’s most basic commitments as a member of the community of nations and as a signatory to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.”
The law is part of a US$167 million plan approved by the Israeli cabinet on 11 December 2011 to crack down on migrants and slow their entry. In addition to extending the length of legal detention, the plan also aims to complete a 227-km fence between Egypt and Israel, enlarge the capacity of detention centres, fine employers who employ illegal migrants and come up with a strategy to repatriate asylum-seekers to Africa.
While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has distinguished between illegal migrants and asylum-seekers in recent statements, rights groups say the government’s policies have lumped them together, targeting genuine refugees as well. They also say of the tens of thousands of people who have claimed asylum in Israel in recent years, almost none have access to a proper Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process. (see side bar)
According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, at least 40,000 “infiltrators and asylum-seekers” - mostly from Sudan and Eritrea - have entered Israel in the past six years, usually smuggled in through Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula by Bedouin tribesmen. Netanyahu has described illegal workers as a “threat” to the country’s very foundation. As he speaks of “fighting the infiltration”, some Israeli neighbourhoods have formed vigilante guards to drive out migrants.
In the midst of all this, here is what some asylum-seekers and aid workers have to say:
S.D, a Sudanese asylum-seeker in Tel Aviv:
“We [the community] don't know anything. Will they round us up and put us in detention centres? Will they force us to leave for another country? We have no idea what tomorrow will bring. I understand that Israelis see us as a mass of people who are a burden on [their] economy and welfare, but what choice did we have but to come here? If they think we are not refugees, they should examine each of us and not make general decisions. I cannot go back to Sudan and I don't think it is fair to jail me for wanting to have a safe life.''
Nassima, a 23-year-old asylum-seeker working as a maid:
“If we cannot work, what will we do? Steal? Beg? I came here because I would not enlist [in the Eritrean army] for life and I am an honest good worker. Much of the trouble in the community is because of unemployment. When you do not have work, you drink; you loiter in the park; that is what makes the Israelis afraid of us, and now the problem will only get worse. I know that Israel is not our country but I think [the state] should try and work with us and not against us. We are human beings, not cattle to be put in a cage.”
Oscar, an asylum-seeker residing in Israel for over 10 years:
“I cannot tell the state of Israel what to do; I believe laws are needed to govern properly but I don't think the law [should be] punishment. If there are illegal migrants amongst the asylum-seekers, how can you tell which are which if you do not allow access to some RSD process? How can you tell which of us is a refugee and who's an illegal migrant? The way I see it the [government of Israel] is going to invest a lot of money in a failed solution.''
Ibrahim, a Sudanese asylum-seeker who arrived in Israel four months ago:
“I don't understand the thing about refugees and migrants. Do you think I would have put my life in danger to come here, as I have, if I were a migrant? I don't understand how you can say that to me. We have been through hell on the way to find a safe place and now you say we should be in jail or returned to our country? You need to think about what you are doing to innocent people.''
Sudanese asylum-seeker who requested anonymity:
“I see how the people in Tel Aviv look at us. It is not easy to have many people come to your city with no money, no work. But even though I understand their fears, I think that they should help us instead of trying to drive us out.”
Sigal Rosen, co-founder of Moked, a hotline for migrant workers:
“This is an outrageous plan. The state intends to hold children and families in long-term detention?… We know that some are economic migrants but in order to decide that, they must all have access to proper RSD process. Worldwide statistics show that over 80 percent of Eritrean asylum-seekers are granted refugee status and over 60 percent of Sudanese asylum-seekers as well. I assume the numbers in Israel would be the same if the cases were reviewed.”
Oded Feller, an attorney with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel:
“We are not against the state's right to guard its borders but we believe that since Israel is a state that was erected for refugees, it should consider the moral and legal obligation it has not to jail asylum-seekers. The state cannot punish asylum-seekers or detain them for long periods of time. It should differentiate between infiltrators [migrants] and refugees and set different standards for dealing with each population.”
Israel’s policy towards asylum-seekers
Israel signed the 1951 Geneva Convention but in the last 50 years only about 650 people have been officially recognized as refugees, including 452 Darfuri asylum-seekers given refugee status and temporary residency in 2007 as a “humanitarian gesture” by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) offices in Israel passed the duties of Refugee Status Determination (RSD) to the RSD unit at the Ministry of the Interior in July 2009. The training process for RSD officers was closely monitored by UNHCR.
Arrivals from Sudan and Eritrea - the bulk of asylum-seekers in Israel - are automatically given collective temporary protection if they can prove their countries of origin. This protects them from deportation, but does not give them any social benefits or permanent status in the country. Human rights activists say this is not an adequate RSD process.
Those arriving from these countries undergo a brief interview at a detention centre after they cross the border and are then released carrying an asylum-seeker’s permit, which has to be renewed every three months.
Arrivals from other countries are judged on a case by case basis. Some get temporary protection; others are detained - sometimes for years; still others are deported.
Under the new law, anyone who enters the country illegally - including Sudanese and Eritreans - can be detained for up to three years, even if there is no intention of deporting them. In some cases, this time period can be extended, even indefinitely.