AFRICAN MIGRANTS sit on pipes outside Holot, a detention centre in Israel’s southern Negev desert..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The state has recently begun to force many African migrants to essentially choose between deportation to Rwanda or indefinite internment in the Saharonim closed detention center, according to a report published Wednesday morning by the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants NGO.
Under a passed in December 2014, the third in the last couple years after the High Court of Justice struck down the first two as unconstitutional, the maximum amount of time most African migrants can be held in Saharonim is three months and the longest most can be held in the Holot open detention center is 20 months.
However, according to the NGO, the state has invented a new loophole so it can detain migrants indefinitely in Saharonim even though the High Court struck down indefinite detention for migrants in a previous version of the law.
There are 45,711 African migrants currently in Israel, down from around 55,000 two years ago, with 33,506 of them hailing from Eritrea, according to the report, which references 43 Eritreans whose requests for refugee status have been rejected or who have not yet sought to be designated as refugees.
The report said the government has quietly initiated a new policy regarding these Eritreans that Hotline expects the state will try to apply on a wider basis to coerce migrants to “self-deport” to Rwanda and other countries.
Under the new policy, which the state has not announced publicly, those migrants whose requests to become refugees are rejected or who have not filed requests are sent for indefinite detention to Saharonim if they do not agree to self-deport to Rwanda after 20 months in Holot. The Justice Ministry had not responded by press time.
The legal loophole claimed by Hotline is that the High Court only said it was unconstitutional to place in indefinite detention those migrants whose refugee status was undecided. In contrast, the new policy would be based on the assumption that the High Court’s ruling did not apply to those the state has decided are not refugees.
The Hotline implied that the legal gymnastics necessary for this argument are highly problematic and still clash with the spirit of the High Court’s recent rulings that African migrants cannot be held in indefinite detention under any scenario absent some criminal offense above and beyond having illegally crossed into Israel.
Besides that central issue, the report slams conditions in Holot as more akin to a prison than an open detention facility.
While recognizing improvements such as heating and air conditioning, which were installed following a petition by the NGO to the High Court on the issue, the NGO said the food quality was problematic, especially for those with medical conditions and special dietary needs; that fines are issued without cause; that insurance benefits are denied; and that personal property is unjustifiably confiscated.
“Just this month, some friends who received permission to attend a meeting in Tel Aviv came back to Holot a little late. I think it was Saturday night and the buses started late.
They were less than one hour late [for an obligatory roll call], and still they were told they would be fined NIS 80 each,” one migrant said in anonymous testimony.
The Center for Migrant Policy, which supports the current state policy on migrants responded to the report saying, “Regretfully, the report mixes many different and unconnected issues, among them the culinary preferences of the migrants in Holot, the situation in Eritrea and the new policy concerning the transfer to safe third countries.”
It continued, “The simple fact that no amount of misinformation can change is that the state has every legal and moral right to enforce its sovereignty and demand that migrants who have entered illegally leave to safe third countries as long as they won’t face any real risk to their well being.”
In a related development, the Hotline announced late Monday that the Interior Ministry filed a legal brief with the High Court permitting the immediate release from Holot of migrant activist Mutasim Ali, a Sudanese citizen from Darfur, after 14 months of detention, following an order from Attorney- General Yehuda Weinstein and a protracted legal battle.
In the petition, Ali’s lawyers Asaf Weitzen and Rachel Friedman argued, among other things, that Ali should be released because his asylum request, filed in late 2012, had not received a response from the state.
“This argument was effectively accepted by the attorney-general and this is the first time that the Interior Ministry will release a person from Holot due to delays in examining his asylum claim,” the Hotline said.
Ali’s release came only after losing numerous lower court battles and the High Court itself pushing off a decision on several occasions.