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(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Knesset Children's Rights Committee held an urgent hearing Wednesday to discuss expulsion orders to be implemented against illegal foreign worker families, including an estimated 300 children, starting next month.
MKs called on the Interior Ministry to notify families weeks in advance, in order to prevent situations in which children under 12, the age of criminal intent, would suffer psychological damage and imprisonment.
"The committee sees great importance in upholding the law, but even so, we don't want to see children sitting in jails," said committee chairman Danny Danon (Likud). "Families must receive a sufficient warning of a number of weeks before they are expelled, so to plan in a way that won't leave scars on the children's psyches."
MKs participating in the hearing, which was requested by MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), took turns criticizing the first guest speaker - Tziki Sela, commander of the Oz Unit ,which is the enforcement arm of the newly formed Population and Immigration Authority in the Interior Ministry.
Sela said that following a series of steps taken since 2005 against illegal foreign workers, the authority will launch a massive crackdown in August to expel the remaining ones.
Last month, Immigration Authority chief Ya'acov Ganot announced that beginning in August, the Oz Unit would begin to arrest children, whereas the previous policy was not to detain either children or single parents.
Representatives of the Interior Ministry, the Justice Ministry, the Health Ministry and local governments all participated in the meeting, and many of them said that they were not prepared to deal with the aftershocks of the operation.
Even the Israel Prisons Service, which will ultimately be responsible for the detention of the workers and their families, said that they were unprepared for the implications of detaining entire families while they are awaiting deportation.
"The IPS is prepared to deal with social situations, but not with a situation like this one," said Lt.-Warden Debbie Sagi.
Sela reassured participants that child detainees would be granted special privileges, including access to computers while detained. But his detractors complained that access to the Web would far from compensate for the psychological damage of detention and expulsion.
"The foreign workers' children are Israelis in every way," said Horowitz. "They were born here. They study here. They speak Hebrew. They don't know any country other than Israel. In my eyes they are Israelis."
Horowitz added that it was unacceptable that on one hand, Israel continues to grant permission to import additional foreign workers, while at the same time it is working to expel those who are already in the country whose visas have expired.
"The problem is not the foreign workers but the importers of the workers, who bring them here without caring for their conditions and status," added MK Dov Henin (Hadash). "They are the ones the Immigration Authority needs to take care of."
NGO workers who aid the workers complained the workers were being stopped on the street and searched for proper documentation.
National Council for the Child chairman Dr. Yitzhak Kadmon reminded committee members that the legal age in Israel for criminal responsibility is 12, and that children below that age cannot be considered to have committed a crime - and thus should not be detained.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Nurit Marcus warned that the detention of children was "highly likely to create serious traumatic reactions, some of which are irreversible. Expulsion constitutes the destruction of the child's entire world, and cause great, ongoing damage both emotionally and cognitively."
Ariel Zirulnick contributed to this report.