Rush to renew visas after increased arrests of African migrants

Around 500 migrants created long lines at Tel Aviv interior ministry following opening of open detention facility last month.

African migrants gather outside Interior Ministry in TA (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
African migrants gather outside Interior Ministry in TA
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Hundreds of African migrants gathered outside the Interior Ministry offices in Tel Aviv on Thursday, in a scramble to renew their one- and two-month condition release visas in order to not find themselves arrested and sent to detention facilities in the South.
The scene has played out for weeks in Tel Aviv and a handful of ministry offices around the country, ever since immigration authorities began arresting migrants illegally in Israel following the opening of the Holot open detention facility last month.
Outside the headquarters in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, around 500, mostly male African migrants crowded outside the building and over the course of about 20 minutes, the line, which snaked around the side of the building, did not appear to move. Inside, families of migrants leaned against a wall and waited.
Those gathered outside showed off expired conditional release visas, saying that if they don’t get them renewed they stand to be arrested as soon as they leave the building.
They said that they used to get them renewed every month or two months at any of dozens of Interior Ministry offices around the country, but now for the past few months they are only able to go to Tel Aviv, Haifa, Beersheba or Eilat for renewals.
Contacted by The Jerusalem Post on Thursday, the Population, Immigration and Borders Authority said they recently decided to reduce the number of offices doing renewals for migrants “in order to make the process more efficient and provide better service to all of them.”
A spokeswoman for PIBA said the decision was supposed to expedite the process but that “once the arrests began, they all began coming in mass to get their visas renewed.”
She added that those who aren’t able to get the visas renewed on the same day they visit are able to get a note saying that they came to the office, which she said prevents them from getting arrested, an assertion the migrants denied.
In addition, she said that PIBA has begun using Arabic- and Tigrinya-speaking clerks to run the process, but that it has become more crowded “because of the fact that infiltrators are hurrying to renew their visas because of the new law and increased enforcement of PIBA against infiltrators and their employers,” she said.
According to PIBA figures, since the Holot facility was opened in mid-December, they have arrested 115 migrants who have been taken to detention facilities in the Negev.
Also on Thursday, PIBA said that over the course of 2013, some 2,612 African migrants voluntarily returned to their home countries, including 1,955 from Eritrea and Sudan. This includes 295 in December and is a marked increase to their figure of 461 from 2012.
The ministry credited the rise to increased enforcement of anti-migrant regulations, including the new amendment to the anti-infiltration law, greater enforcement of labor laws against people employing illegal migrants, and increased economic incentives for those who agree to move back, which have risen to $3,500 from $1,500 last year.
The terminology “willful returns” is a controversial one, especially among African migrants and their supporters who say that because they are not allowed to legally work in Israel and face incarceration for indefinite periods of time for being in the country, the decision to return home is not done voluntarily.