African 'tent city' faces closedown

Exclusive: Hazardous substances may be near housing site at Ketziot Prison.

jp.services1 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
The state's primary housing solution for African refugees - a tent city at Ketziot Prison - might be postponed indefinitely due to allegations that the entire project was built illegally, local officials told The Jerusalem Post Wednesday. The Ramat Hanegev Regional Council, whose jurisdiction includes the Ketziot Prison, has launched a formal complaint with the Prime Minister's office that alleges that the tent city was built without the approval of the local authorities. "To this date, the work that has been done on the tent city has been done without any legal papers. It cannot be that the government builds a tent city illegally," said Schmulik Rifman, head of the Ramat Hanegev Regional Council. "There a number of dire problems facing the facilities they are building which must be confronted." Rifman claimed that contractors had not evaluated the land before beginning work on the tent city, and that in the past asbestos and other hazardous material had been found nearby. The tent city, which is currently being planned for up to 1,000 refugees, will also cause a serious water crisis for the area, said Rifman, as many farmers are already struggling to make do, during the dry summer months, with the water currently allocated. "The government needed a solution, so they put them here where no one would notice. They checked nothing with us, the local authorities. According to the law, I can take out an official order for them to stop work," said Rifman. The tent city that is currently being erected on the southern outskirts of the Ketziot Prison was meant to house the majority of Israel's 1,300 African refugees until the government could determine a long-term solution. Although Israel Prison Services (IPS) spokesmen said that it would be completed by the middle of August, that date has been moved back to the first week of September. The IPS declined to comment on Rifman's allegations, stating that the entire project was conceived and planned by the Defense Ministry and Internal Security Ministry. When the plan was announced one month ago, it was meant to relieve pressure from local authorities and volunteers, who have been finding ad hoc housing solutions for the growing stream of refugees making their way across the porous Israel-Egypt border. What began with several hundred refugees in 2007, has swelled to 2,400 African refugees, according to Amnesty International. Roughly half are from Sudan, while the rest come from a number of countries including Eritrea, Ghana, and Kenya. Most of those refugees will be deported to Egypt, according to an agreement reached by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Human Rights organizations, however, are making special appeals for Sudanese refugees, whose country has been at war for decades. At the moment, only the 300-400 refugees from Darfur, a province in western Sudan, are likely to receive permanent asylum in Israel, according to the Interior Minister. "What is clear here is that regardless of what the government does, it will take not only months, but possibly years, to find solutions for the refugees. In the meanwhile, more are arriving and local volunteers and officials are being left to house and feed these people," said Reut Gallil, a Beersheba-based volunteer who has been helping the refugees.