African migrants stand next to a bus after abandoning a detention facility in the southern Israeli desert.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The cabinet on Sunday gave its approval to a new migrant detention policy in record time after the High Court of Justice struck down as unconstitutional the state’s two previous versions of the bill.
The policy still needs to be approved by the Knesset before it becomes law.
The court told the state in September it must close the Holot open detention center within 90 days and froze aspects limiting the movement of illegal migrants. It struck down the constitutionality of holding newly arrived illegal migrants in the closed Saharonim detention center for one year.
Sunday’s version seeks to amend the policy by shortening the maximum amount of time migrants can be detained in each facility and changing some aspects of their conditions.
The policy allows for migrants to be held in the Holot open detention center for a maximum of 20 months, as opposed to the previous version in which they could be detained indefinitely.
At the closed Saharonim detention center, it allows for migrants to be held for a maximum of three months as opposed to a year in the previous version.
In addition, whereas detainees were ordered to sign in three times a day at Holot, the draft calls on them to sign in just once a day.
While that change somewhat frees-up migrants’ movement, there are still elaborate prohibitions and sanctions designed to prevent migrants from finding employment.
The policy appears to be somewhat of a middle ground between what the High Court seemed to suggest and what recently resigned interior minister Gideon Sa’ar was seeking.
The High Court appeared to strongly suggest a policy based more on integrating migrants than on extended detention periods to deter them from staying in the country. Sa’ar had said he wanted a two-year detention period in Holot and around eight months in Saharonim.
The former interior minister and many other politicians said the court’s ruling undermined a policy that had been effective in dealing with the illegal migrant population, which had dropped to 48,212 as of June 30 – around 10,000 fewer than it was at its height a few years ago.
Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein appeared to seek a middle path, though it is unclear if even this third policy will pass the High Court’s scrutiny.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “Among our national responsibilities is defending our borders.
Today, we are submitting to the cabinet an amended illegal migration bill. It fits the reality. It also fits the rulings of the High Court of Justice.”
He added, “I remind you that Israel has achieved the extraordinary – which I’m very proud of – in blocking illegal migration across our borders – zero illegal migrants.
Part of this entails repatriating illegal migrants. This year we repatriated over 6,000 illegal migrants. This legislation is designed to enable us to continue this trend.”
But the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants slammed the changes, saying the government’s new policy was “belittling the High Court of Justice, southern residents of Tel Aviv and the citizens of Israel.”
It added that, “for the third time, the government stubbornly continues to lie to the public and to squander a chance to formulate a real solution.”
The nongovernmental organization emphasized that the funds the state was putting into detention centers could have been used, and would have been better spent, on integrating the migrants into society.
There is a strong chance that if it goes into law – in its absence, all migrants would need to be freed around December 22 – the NGO will ask the High Court to strike it down again.
In the court’s majority opinion by Justice Uzi Vogelman, he said in the crucial debate over whether the migrants are here for economic reasons or to escape persecution, the court could not ignore that the state was not forcing migrants to go back.
There is at least a serious concern of persecution for Eritreans, and the Sudanese are not being sent back because of the lack of diplomatic relations with Sudan, he said.
With nowhere to send most of the migrants, the state needs to figure out a more humane way of dealing with their presence in the country besides throwing them in detention, whether it be open or closed, Vogelman said.
The justice focused on Israel’s international law obligations under conventions relating to refugees, and he found its rate of granting refugee status is far lower than most of the world.
The spike in illegal migrants from Africa started about nine years ago and at one point the numbers reached as high as 60,000.