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.
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.