Ahead of mass deportations, Knesset extends restrictions on migrants

Holot detention facilities to be shuttered in three months, government to prevent migrants from taking money out of the country

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Asylum seekers protesting at the Holot detention center in the southern Negev Desert of Israel, February 17, 2014. (Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)
Asylum seekers protesting at the Holot detention center in the southern Negev Desert of Israel, February 17, 2014. (Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)

The Knesset on Monday voted to extend tough restrictions on illegal migrants and shutter the Holot detention facilities in southern Israel in three months’ time, underlining the government’s commitment to planned mass deportations of African migrants to Rwanda and Uganda.

The plan, introduced by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, cleared its second and third readings with 71 MKs in favor and 41 opposed.

As a result of the plan and closing the facilities,”the infiltrators will have the option to be imprisoned or leave the country,” the Public Security Ministry said last month, upon unveiling the proposal.

Stepping up pressure on the migrants to leave, the laws also place financial limitations on the migrants, preventing them from removing funds from the country. It extends penalties on employers of the some 40,000 African migrants in the country illegally and places geographic limits on where the migrants may travel.

The government plan has been criticized by Amnesty International and the UN refugee agency. The rights group argued last month the “geographic limits” could effectively deprive the migrants of health and welfare services, as it allows the interior minister to ban them from Tel Aviv — the only city where those services are provided.

The proposal also extends a series of other limitations on migrants by another three years.

Labor chief Avi Gabbay had urged lawmakers from his party to support the bill. Amid pushback from the center-left party’s MKs, he later permitted the lawmakers to vote as they please. Some 20 MKs from the Zionist Union (which is made up of the Labor and Hatnuah parties) ultimately voted against the bill, but the bid nonetheless drew criticism from other opposition parties.

Gabbay “has forgotten what is means to be Jewish,” Joint (Arab) List Dov Khenin said dryly during the stormy hourslong Knesset debate that preceded the vote. He was referring to a controversial comment by Gabbay about Israel’s left, which was a paraphrase of the same comment by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1990s.

“You shall love the stranger! You shall love the stranger! You shall love the stranger! You shall love the stranger!” Khenin shouted in the plenum during the debate.

The government proposal came in response to a High Court of Justice ruling in late August that backed Israel’s controversial practice of deporting illegal migrants to an unnamed third country.

The government has signaled it will soon step up the pace of deportations.

Israel tacitly recognizes that Sudanese and Eritreans cannot be returned to their dangerous homelands, so it has signed deals with third countries, which agree to accept departing migrants on condition they consent to the arrangement, according to activists.

In August, the High Court of Justice approved the emigration policy, but also ruled that Israeli authorities had to first ensure that the countries to which migrants were being deported were safe. Though the state has not named the third countries, they have been identified in media reports as Rwanda and Uganda.

However, the High Court also ruled that since the deportations may only be carried out with the agreement of the migrants, refusal to leave Israel cannot be considered uncooperative behavior. And Israel may not imprison migrants who refuse to leave for more than 60 days.

The Population and Immigration Authority says more than 40,000 illegal African migrants are residing in Israel as of 2016, almost all from Eritrea and Sudan. Many live in the poorer neighborhoods of southern Tel Aviv, with some blaming them for rising crime rates in the city.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with residents of south Tel Aviv during a tour in the neighborhood, August 31, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Many migrants say they are fleeing conflict and persecution and are seeking refugee status. Israeli officials contend they are economic migrants, and have resisted calls to recognize them as refugees.

Holot, an open facility in the desert that can host 1,200 migrants who are allowed to leave to work during the day, would be closed three months from December 16, according to the decision, unless ministers seek another extension.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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