Ministers move to detain migrants for a year without trial

Amendment to ‘infiltrator law’ replaces clause — shot down by High Court — that would have allowed for 3-year detention

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

African immigrants seen at a detention facility located in the south of Israel. August, 2012. (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
African immigrants seen at a detention facility located in the south of Israel. August, 2012. (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

The cabinet on Sunday approved an amendment to a controversial bill that would allow the detention of migrants who have entered Israel illegally for up to a year without trial in closed-door detention centers, and for a much longer period in other, more open, facilities.

The amendment was part of the so-called “infiltrator law,” which was sponsored by Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar and approved by 12 ministers, with two abstaining.

An earlier version of the bill, which called for keeping migrants in closed detention centers for up to three years without trial, was struck down by the High Court of Justice in September as unconstitutional. The court also gave the government 90 days to either bring to trial or release all those being held under the overturned amendment.

Under the revised version of the bill that was approved on Sunday, authorities will be able to keep migrants in open detention centers for up to three years without trial proceedings. The open-door facilities require the inhabitants to return every night and attend three head counts at the center during the day. Migrants can be held in closed-door facilities for up to one year.

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation is due to review the bill on Monday ahead of a reading in the Knesset next week.

Organizations championing migrants’ rights criticized the new amendment, saying it was just as unconstitutional as the version that was repealed by the High Court.

Last Friday the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, along with other rights organizations, wrote a letter to Deputy Attorney-General Dina Zilber and to Daniel Solomon, the legal adviser to the Population and Immigration Authority, voicing their objections to the proposed changes.

In the letter, Oded Feller, director of the Citizenship and Residency Program at ACRI, wrote that the provision to hold detainees for a year without trial was illegal because it violated the right to freedom.

“Imprisonment under these circumstances, whether for one year or three, is prohibited,” he wrote.

The letter further argued that, even in the open detention centers, the distance to the nearest population centers and the fact that residents must be present three times during the day to be counted, makes travel outside of the center all but impossible.

“This is a prison that will jail asylum seekers who cannot be deported from Israel indefinitely and without judicial oversight,” the letter asserted. “It is a prison that is intended to break the spirit of asylum seekers by forcing them to agree to go wherever they are told.”

There are currently more than 50,000 African migrants in Israel, many of whom reside in south Tel Aviv, where residents complain of friction including crime and incidents of sexual harassment. Some 1,750 migrants are already being held without trial, most of them in a detention center in southern Israel.

The migrants, know in Hebrew as “infiltrators,” make their way to Israel across the border with Egypt from various countries in Africa, although most hail from Eritrea and Sudan. While in the past hundreds succeeded in crossing the border every month, a new border fence has cut off their method of entry. Last week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that over the last three months there have been no breaches of Israel’s border with Egypt.

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