Eritrean migrants in Tel Aviv..
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
High Court Justice Hanan Melcer blasted the state over its African migrant policy on Tuesday, demanding to know how detained migrants could “have money for ice cream” if they didn’t even have enough for basic necessities.
He made the comment during a dramatic hearing before a full nine-justice High Court panel that will rule whether the migrant policy – the third one the state has passed – is constitutional.
The state attorney had been telling the court that detained migrants, at NIS 498 per month, were paid more than some IDF soldiers. The most current amended law pays the migrants a stipend and offers courses at the detention centers where they reside, she continued, but she added sardonically that it did not allow them to work and earn lots of money so they could buy themselves all the ice cream they wanted.
“From where would detained migrants have money for ice cream?” Melcer replied.
His cutting response was part of his statement that the state was not paying the migrants enough, and that by making it impossible for them to work in the area around the detention centers in the South, the state was preventing them from having the funds to buy the basics, let alone extras like ice cream.
Melcer’s comment reflected the unusually open frustration of several of the justices with the state attorney’s refusal to address many of its questions about whether the new policy included a serious check of the migrants’ potential refugee status. Such a status would enable the migrants to work and become permanent residents.
In December, the state passed its third version of the migrant policy, which still entails the detention of thousands of migrants – though for a shorter period than under the two prior policies, which the court declared unconstitutional.
Tuesday’s hearing was in response to a December petition by the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants to declare the latest policy unconstitutional as well.
Attending Tuesday’s hearing were MK Miri Regev (Likud) and hundreds of supporters of both the migrants and south Tel Aviv residents – the former group opposing the state’s detention policies, and the latter in favor of them.
Outside of the courtroom, the two groups traded verbal jabs, with a south Tel Aviv resident calling the migrants “garbage,” and a migrant responding that they only wanted to stand up for “their rights.”
The state vehemently rejected allegations that it was “out to break the spirit” of the migrants to make them leave “willingly.”
But Supreme Court President Miriam Naor and other justices heavily pressured the state to explain how the 20 months that many migrants might end up spending in detention could be legal and not a disproportionate solution to the problem.
Justice Uzi Vogelman said that even if there was a “substantial change” in the policy compared to earlier versions, the continued issues of the migrants’ extended detention, low pay and isolated location meant the new policy might be having “the same effect” in violating their rights.
The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants has argued in its petition that the new policy still violates migrants’ fundamental rights and has an unconstitutional purpose of oppressing the migrants so they will “choose” to leave. The petitioners also accuse the state of failing to seriously address requests for refugee status, noting that the High Court has already said that most of the migrants cannot be expelled under international law.
International law bars expelling refugees even if they arrived illegally, unless they leave willingly. The petitioners argue that “willingly” means without the state’s tactics, which they call oppressive.
A lawyer representing the south Tel Aviv residents argued that Israel’s migrant problem was unique and not like European countries’, but the court did not appear interested.
The court had told the state in September that it must close the Holot open-detention center within 90 days, and froze some of the limits that the old policy had placed on the illegal migrants’ movement.
It also declared it unconstitutional to hold newly arrived illegal migrants for a year in the closed Saharonim detention center.
The latest policy shortened the maximum amount of time migrants could be detained in each facility and changed some aspects of their detention conditions.
It allows for holding migrants in the Holot center for a maximum of 20 months, as opposed to the previous version, in which they could be detained indefinitely.
At the Saharonim detention center, it allows for holding migrants 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 present draft requires them to sign in just once a day.
While that change somewhat frees up the migrants’ movement, there are still elaborate prohibitions and sanctions designed to prevent them from finding employment.