African Refugees Protest Detainment in Israel


Oren Ziv/Getty Images Europe, via Oren Ziv

Israeli officers arrest an African migrant during a demonstration outside Parliament in Jerusalem on Friday.

By  ISABEL KERSHNER
Published: December 17, 2013
JERUSALEM — Some arrived here on Tuesday in sturdy walking boots donated by local aid organizations; others came less equipped for the leftover snow on the ground, wearing sandals and house slippers. 

They held placards bearing slogans like “Refugees but not criminals” and a verse invoking a biblical injunction against oppressing the stranger because “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The roughly 200 asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea came to protest their treatment by the Israeli authorities, finishing a two-day journey. On Sunday they left a new “open” detention facility where they were being held in the Negev desert and walked for about six hours to Beersheba, the nearest city. They spent the night in the bus station there and another night at a kibbutz that had agreed to host them. They made the final leg of the journey by bus.

Once in Jerusalem, they gathered outside the Israeli prime minister’s office and marched to the Parliament building.

It was the latest round in the long-running political, legal and emotional struggle of the African migrants and their Israeli supporters against a government that is committed to clamping down on “infiltrators,” the term it uses for those who enter the country surreptitiously.

The protest came after Parliament last week approved an amendment to Israel’s Prevention of Infiltration Law. It allows for the detention of migrants who enter the country illegally for up to a year without trial and allows the state to hold those already in Israel indefinitely in the open detention facility. The amendment replaced previous legislation that allowed for detention without trial for up to three years. Israel’s Supreme Court overturned that law in September, ruling that it violated principles of human dignity and freedom. Local human rights groups have already petitioned the Supreme Court against the new measures.

Named Holot, Hebrew for sands, the remote new facility is open by day and locked at night. But detainees have to be present for roll call three times a day, a provision meant to prevent them from working outside.

A spokeswoman for the Israel Prison Service said 484 detainees were transferred from Saharonim, a detention center in the Negev that is locked day and night, to Holot on Thursday and Friday, but by Monday only 139 remained. Residents who leave the facility for 48 hours or more can be arrested and sent back to Saharonim prison.

One of the demonstrators, Yasir Abdullah Mashin, 26, from western Sudan, said he had spent 16 months in Saharonim and another detention facility before being transferred to Holot on Friday.

“There’s no difference,” he said. “It’s all the same prison. We are refugees; otherwise, we wouldn’t have left Sudan. But how can a refugee be in prison for two years? We thought it was better to do something than nothing.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended his government’s policies on Tuesday, saying, “Just as we are determined to protect our borders, we’re determined to enforce the law.”

He added, “The infiltrators who were transferred to the special detainment facility can either stay there or go back to their home countries.”

About 60,000 Africans have entered Israel since 2005, most of them Sudanese or Eritreans who cannot be sent back to their home countries because of the risks, in line with international conventions.

Israel acknowledges that some of the migrants may be genuine refugees from war-torn countries but says most of those who have crossed the border from the Egyptian Sinai are economic migrants seeking work. A mechanism to register legitimate refugees was set up in 2009, but few applications have been processed and approved. Israel recently constructed a fence along the border with Egypt, almost completely halting the influx.

The migrants have formed concentrations in rundown areas like south Tel Aviv, leading to friction with the local population.

About four hours after the protesters arrived in Jerusalem, officers from the immigration police put them back on buses, some by force. A spokesman for the immigration department of the Interior Ministry said they were being taken to Saharonim, where they would be reincarcerated.

Source: New York Times

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