Amnesty blasts migrant bill as Knesset approves it for vote

Amnesty blasts migrant bill as Knesset approves it for vote

Human rights watchdog says new legislation will deprive children of healthcare, denounces ‘shameful cold-heartedness by descendants of refugees’

African migrants take part in a protest in Tel Aviv on June 10, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
African migrants take part in a protest in Tel Aviv on June 10, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

A human rights watchdog on Wednesday slammed the government after it advanced a controversial bill regulating the deportation or incarceration of African migrants

The Knesset’s Internal Affairs Committee’s decision (by a vote tally of 9 to 5) to approve the bill for its second and third readings was criticized by Amnesty International’s Israel office as “shameful cold-heartedness by the descendants of refugees who have forgotten their past.”

Amnesty said the committee had toughened the bill, imposing geographic limitations on migrants that would effectively deprive them of health and welfare services. The organization noted that the revised bill grants the interior minister complete authority to ban migrants from Tel Aviv — the only place where such services are provided to them.

It also said coalition members had voted down requests by opposition members that exceptions be considered for women, children and disabled people. Coalition members had voted “against allowing sick children to see doctors,” Amnesty said.

The bill also places limitations on migrants’ financial dealings and deals with an extension of operations at the southern Holot detention center for migrants.

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

Chen Bril Egri, Head of Campaigns for Refugees and Asylum Seekers at Amnesty International – Israel, said the panel’s decision was “cruel” and “expresses shameful cold-heartedness by the descendants of refugees who have forgotten their past, and who show contempt for basic human rights.”

Many of the migrants say they are fleeing conflict and persecution in countries like Eritrea and Sudan and are seeking refugee status. Israeli officials contend they are economic migrants, and have resisted calls to recognize them as refugees.

The government has said it plans to close Holot within months in anticipation of large-scale deportations to third-party countries, while those who refuse deportation will be jailed.

The UN refugee agency has expressed “serious concern” over the proposal, with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees saying Israel “has legal obligations to protect refugees and other persons in need of international protection.”

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 hasn’t named the third countries, they have been identified in media reports as Rwanda and Uganda.

African migrants gather during a protest in Lewinsky park in Tel Aviv on January 9, 2014. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Expulsion to a third country is largely unprecedented in the Western world. Italy and Australia signed similar agreements with third-party countries — Italy with Libya, and Australia with Malaysia — but both proposals were shot down by local courts. In both cases, courts ruled the bills inconsistent with international law and the 1951 UN convention on refugees — to which Israel is also a party.

The Population and Immigration Authority says around 35,000 illegal African migrants reside in Israel as of 2017, most of them from Eritrea and Sudan. Many live in the poorer neighborhoods of southern Tel Aviv. Some Israeli residents have blamed them for rising crime rates in the city.

Marissa Newman contributed to this report.

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