The Knesset on Monday passed a law meant to prevent infiltration of illegal African migrants into Israel and to encourage others already here to leave.
This version of the legislation, an amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law (1954), follows two previous ones that the High Court of Justice struck down.
The version passed on Monday, first in committee and then in the plenum (47-23), includes three main basic changes over previous ones.
It cuts the time new illegal migrants can be kept in closed detention centers from one year to three months, after which they are to be moved to the Holot open detention center in the Negev.
The law stipulates that migrants can be held for up to 20 months in Holot and that they must show up for a head count once a day, as opposed to a previously suggested three times, and finally, it outlines stiffer penalties for people employing illegal migrants.
Migrants who have work sponsors and permits that allow them to work must also pay a monthly deposit, which they can only recoup after leaving the country. The money will be taken from the migrants’ salaries.
Interior Minister Gilad Erdan said of the measure, “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 the law was not perfect, but would prevent 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 said.
The legislation was criticized by MK Dov Henin (Hadash) who said that it “does not give any solution to the distress of the residents of south Tel Aviv,” and 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.”
He called for “taking the hundreds of millions of shekels we’re burying in the sand [at Holot] and investing it in a plan to save south Tel Aviv.”
Activists supporting the migrant population gathered outside the Knesset, releasing balloons and calling for MKs to vote against the legislation.
In a press release on Sunday, organizers of the protest said it was also held to mark the first anniversary of a mass protest launched by African migrants in Tel Aviv and elsewhere, which included a general strike and demonstrations that saw tens of thousands of people gather in central Tel Aviv calling for the government to change its policies on African migrants.
The statement quoted 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 Holot, which has room for about 3,000 migrants. They have pushed to allow illegal migrants from Africa 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 countries of origin, as well as resettlement money for those willing to leave.
According to Population, Immigration and Borders Authority figures, 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 and 50,000 plus.
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, having defected and fled national service.
Sheffy Paz, a south Tel Aviv resident who has led protest actions against the migrants, said before the vote that she and other supporters believe the legislation “is a terrible bill but we should support it. We would have wanted one with more teeth, but the bill [in commitee] 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 willingly to their countries.”
In a joint statement released minutes after the bill was approved in committee, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, ASSAF – Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights, Kav LaOved – Worker’s Hotline, the African Refugee Development Center and Amnesty International-Israel said, “Today, the Knesset approved continuing to hold the High Court in contempt, misleading the residents of southern Tel Aviv and wasting taxpayers’ money on unacceptable solutions. Incarceration for almost two years in the Holot facility and placing restrictions on employers of asylum-seekers will ensure that the rights of asylum-seekers will continue to be violated, and that the hardships of south Tel Aviv’s residents will only be exacerbated.”
They said they plan to petition against the legislation in the High Court.
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