African migrants walk in front of the entrance to Holot open detention center in the Negev .
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Knesset Interior Committee approved on Monday the second and third reading of a bill meant to prevent “infiltration” of African migrants into Israel, and to encourage others to leave the country. The new version of the bill follows two previous ones that were struck down by the High Court of Justice, and means the bill has only to be voted on by the Knesset plenum in order to go into law.
The Knesset plenum is scheduled to vote on the bill on Monday night.
The latest version passed in committee today includes three main basic changes over previous versions. It cuts the time a new migrant can be kept in closed detention centers from a year to three months, after which they’ll be moved to the Holot open detention center. The new bill stipulates that migrants can be held for up to 20 months in Holot and that they must show up for head count once a day as opposed to three times like before, and finally, it outlines new, stiffer penalties for people employing illegal migrants. Migrants must also pay a monthly deposit which they can only receive after leaving the country.
Interior Minister Gilad Erdan said of the bill, "The argument here is between two political groups: "Those who see Israel, first and foremost as the one and only nation state of the Jews, and the Left bloc, who, unfortunately, are willing to endanger this." He said that the latest version of the bill was not perfect, but prevented the freeing of "thousands of detainees" at the Holot open detention center "into the streets of south Tel Aviv and the job market." "The residents of south Tel Aviv deserve personal security and a return to the normal lives they once had. We have to look them in the eyes and help them get their former lives back," Erdan stated.
The new version of the bill was criticized on Monday by MK Dov Khenin (Hadash) who said that it “does not give any solution to the distress of the residents of south Tel Aviv,” saying that instead of working to solve the problems faced in the neighborhoods where most of the migrants are concentrated, the state “has again chosen militancy and hatred.”
On Monday, activists supporting the migrant population gathered outside the Knesset, releasing balloons and calling for MKs to vote against the amended bill. In a press release on Sunday, organizers of the protest said it was also held to mark the one-year anniversary of a mass protest movement launched by African migrants in Tel Aviv and elsewhere, which included a general strike and protests that saw tens of thousands of people gathered in central Tel Aviv calling for Israel to change its policies on African migrants.
The statement quotes Hagit Shemer, a resident of the Shapira neighborhood of south Tel Aviv and one of the protest organizers as saying that “imprisoning 3,000 people will only cost us millions and won’t help anyone, and certainly not the residents of south Tel Aviv. The solution is to give asylum seekers work permits for places across Israel and to invest funds in south Tel Aviv.”
African migrants and their Israeli supporters have called for the government to close the Holot detention center, which has room to house about 3,000 inmates. They have called on the government to allow African migrants in Israel to work legally and move freely around the country, and to examine their asylum requests promptly and thoroughly.
Opened in December 2013, the Holot detention center is part of a package of measures meant to encourage migrants to repatriate themselves to their home countries. These other measures have included stiffer penalties on their employment and restrictions on their ability to send money back to their home countries as well as resettlement money for those willing to return. According to Population, Immigration, and Borders Authority (PIBA) figures, a total of 6,190 migrants have agreed to return to their countries so far in 2014, out of a population whose numbers are estimated at between 40,000 to over 50,000.
Most migrants are from Eritrea, and they and their supporters argue that if they return to the East African country they could face persecution by the authoritarian regime in Asmara due to the fact that they defected and fled national service.
Sheffy Paz, a south Tel Aviv resident who has led protest actions against the African migrant population, said that she and other supporters believe the new law “is a terrible law but we should support it. We would have wanted one with more teeth but the law passed very quickly.”
Paz said that she and others believe that closing Holot would send a dangerous message and that the migrant population would “begin to raise their heads and we would see this in the streets, in a declining level of personal security.”
She added that she and others are “not in favor of imprisoning innocent people”, but that Holot “is the greatest incentive for convincing people to return willfully to their countries.”