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(photo credit: AP)
The Knesset Committee on the Rights of the Child held an emergency meeting on Tuesday to discuss the incarceration conditions of unaccompanied minor refugees.
The discussion revealed a grim situation whereby despite consensus agreement that the minors should not be held in prisons, no government authority is responsible for finding alternative solutions.
The Israel Prison Authority reported that there are currently 57 unaccompanied minors, most of whom hail from Eritrea and crossed the Egyptian border into Israel illegally, incarcerated in two detention centers. Some of the children have been incarcerated in the prisons, which according to the prison authority itself are not suitable for children, for up to five months. According to detention division chief Ofra Klinger, 47 of the minors are being held in the Givon prison, near Ramla, and the others are in the Saharonim detention center in Ketziot.
“The committee toured Givon several months ago and witnessed first hand the despicable conditions. It is not the fault of the Prisons Authority, who do the best they can, but it is a grave situation when six children are placed in a cell with bars on the windows. There is also Saharonim, where children are kept in conditions more fitting for animals than human beings,” said committee chairman Danny Danon (Likud).
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) made a special appearance at the meeting to express his concern over the situation and vowed to find an immediate solution to the problem.
“Nothing can excuse a society and a state that tolerates this situation,” said Rivlin. “Jewish morality demands we give aid to these refugees because of the situation the Jewish people were in for 2,000 years. We cannot abandon the helpless. If I was the prison’s director, I would offer these children my own office.”
Throughout the course of the meeting and as representatives of the various government ministries spoke, it became clear that all the parties were concerned about the existing situation, but that there is no single authority charged with caring for the refugee children’s welfare.
Emanuel Grupper, director of the Residential Education and Guidance department of the Ministry of Education said that his ministry was willing to accept 100 children in its various boarding schools and that 64 children and youth had already been placed in six boarding schools across the country and ten more were in the process of being placed. Grupper explained that placing the students in the regular school system was not always easy and required preparation and time. He also said that some of the youth, especially the older ones, were not interested in going to school and preferred arrangements that would enable them to work.
Legal counsel for the Social Affairs and Welfare Ministry said the ministry had placed seven chidren in a boarding facility in the north and was prepared to accommodate 13 more, but stressed that the youth did not fall under the ministry’s responsibility because they were not defined as “youth at risk.” The Justice Ministry representative said that the ministry was holding deliberations with all the relevant agencies in order to set up regulations for the unaccompanied minors. She added that so far the ministy had drafted a recommendation to close the Givon center and move its occupants to a better-equipped facility in Hadera.
The Finance Ministry representative said the ministry would likely fund any solution which was agreed upon, provided the government backed it.
Throughout the meeting, representatives of human rights organizations who were present, tried to drive home the message that the children should not be held in detention centers of any sort. “These are innocent children, some of them are not even of legal age to stand trial. They have done nothing wrong and should not be in prison at all,” said Sigal Rozen from the Migrant Workers Hotline.
Meretz MK Nitzan Horovitz said the current situation was a disgrace to Israel.
“The children are in prisons because of crippling government
bureaucracy. Boarding school principals are willing to take them, but
everything is at a standstill because nobody is willing to take
responsibility,” he said.
“There is good will from all the ministries, but nobody who is taking
responsibility for these children,” said Danon. “What we need is
somebody to take up the mandate of arranging appropriate solutions for
the children. There needs to be a minister who knows he is responsible
Danon concluded the meeting by calling on the Justice Ministry to
present to the committee, by July first, the proposed regulations
regarding treatment of unaccompanied minors. If it isn’t ready in time,
said Danon, the committee would promote legislation to forbid the
incarceration of unaccompanied minors.