'PM’s immigration bill could violate refugee rights'

Exclusive: Letter obtained by 'Post' reveals UN agency concern over bill that would make it easier to detain, deport illegals.

December 25, 2011 01:06
3 minute read.
Sudanese detained after crossing southern border

Sudanese detained after crossing southern border 311 (R). (photo credit: Yonathan Weitzman / Reuters)

The UN Refugee Agency has expressed concern over Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s plan to find solutions for illegal immigrants, according to a letter obtained by The Jerusalem Post.

The Bill to Prevent Infiltration, a central tenet of Netanyahu’s new policy, would allow the state to deport some illegal immigrants, and also hold in custody for more than three years without a trial the immigrants it cannot deport. The legislation, which applies only to those who came to Israel in search of work, is expected to be brought to the Knesset plenum for its second and third (final) readings this week.

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William Tall, a representative of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Israel, wrote to Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin on December 15 that the UN office has reacted both in writing and at Knesset Interior Affairs Committee meetings concerning the bill, as part of its mandate from the General Assembly to take care of refugees around the world.

“Our serious concern with the current draft Legislation for the Prevention of Infiltration is that if applied to asylum-seekers in its current form, it could constitute a breach of Israel’s rights and obligations as stipulated in the UN Convention for Refugees for which Israel was a founding signatory,” Tall wrote.

The UNHCR representative noted that the legislation’s explanatory portion said it did not seek to defy the UN Convention, which states that a refugee may not be removed to “a place where his life or liberty would be at risk on the basis of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

Tall said he sought to ensure the bill was amended to specify that it did not apply to those who fell under the UN’s definition of refugee.

Copies of the letter to Rivlin were also sent to Knesset Interior Committee chairman Amnon Cohen (Shas), as well as representatives of the Justice, Foreign, Interior and Defense ministries.

Cohen was unavailable for comment, but an Interior Affairs Committee source recounted last Monday’s meeting, in which Mickey Bavly, an honorary UNHCR representative in Israel, said the bill in its current form would not necessarily violate the UN Convention. However, Bavly added, the text did preclude the possibility of the legislation being applied to refugees, and he asked that the exclusion of refugees be included in the language.

The source said the UN had no reason for concern, because the bill only sought a humane solution for those illegally seeking work in Israel that would give them food and shelter without allowing them into the workforce, while legitimate refugees would be treated differently.

Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz, chairman of the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers, is also a member of the Interior Committee. He said he voted against the bill in the committee meeting because it was “draconian” to detain illegal immigrants for years without a trial.

“We cannot allow this to happen,” he said. “In a civilized country, only people who underwent a trial go to jail.”

Horowitz said people are often confused between foreign workers, illegal work-migrants and refugees, but they were all people, and if one group was in danger of imprisonment without a fair trial, they all were.

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