Ministers push plan to imprison illegal migrants who won’t leave

Aryeh Deri and Gilad Erdan say new rules will ensure that ‘infiltrators’ will have ‘only two options: leave voluntarily or sit in jail’

African migrants take part in a protest in Tel Aviv on June 10, 2017,against the 'Deposit Law,' which requires them to deposit 20% of their salary in a fund which they can only take back after they leave the country. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
African migrants take part in a protest in Tel Aviv on June 10, 2017,against the 'Deposit Law,' which requires them to deposit 20% of their salary in a fund which they can only take back after they leave the country. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan announced on Sunday they were launching an “intensive effort” to ensure undocumented asylum seekers leave the country “voluntarily” by imprisoning those who refuse to leave.

The move follows a new law passed earlier this month that imposed tough new restrictions on illegal migrants and ordered the shuttering of the Holot detention facility in southern Israel by February.

In their joint statement Sunday, Erdan and Deri said the Interior Ministry’s Population and Migration Authority would produce a public statement in the coming days clarifying the options available to the roughly 1,200 migrants currently housed at Holot.

“The plan will present infiltrators with only two options: leave voluntarily or sit in jail,” Sunday’s statement explained.

“We decided to close Holot in order to send a clear message to infiltrators: the state of Israel is determined to give the residents of southern Tel Aviv [where many asylum seekers live] their old life back, and to deport the tens of thousands of illegal infiltrators who have made their homes in the country,” Erdan said Sunday.

File: Public Security MInister Gilad Erdan, left, speaks with then-Minister of Economy Aryeh Deri in the Knesset assembly hall, May 25, 2015, Jerusalem. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The issue of the infiltrators residing illegally in Israel is a burning issue, and this is our opportunity to fulfill my promise to the residents of southern Tel Aviv to give them back their peace and security,” Deri said.

The two plan to bring their plan to a full cabinet vote on Wednesday, they said in the statement.

The proposal is the latest response by ministers to a High Court of Justice ruling in late August that backed Israel’s controversial practice of deporting illegal migrants to unnamed third countries.

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 ruled the policy was legal, but also said 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.

Christina, left, organized Come True students to volunteer with orphans in Kampala on September 1, 2017 along with Atoch Amos (not pictured). Both were South Sudanese migrants deported from Israel. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

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.

It’s not clear how the new policy, once its details are made public on Wednesday, will fare in the High Court.

Earlier this month, the Knesset approved by a vote of 71 to 41 a plan introduced by Deri and Erdan that sought to up pressure on the migrants to leave via the government’s voluntary deportation plan to Rwanda and Uganda.

“The infiltrators will have the option to be imprisoned or leave the country,” Erdan said in November, when unveiling the proposal.

The December law also placed financial limitations on the migrants, preventing them from removing funds from the country. It extended penalties on employers and placed geographic limits on where the migrants may travel within the country.

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

The proposal also extended a series of existing 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 wished. Some 20 MKs from the Zionist Union (which is made up of the Labor and Hatnua 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,” Arab Joint List MK Dov Khenin said dryly during the stormy hours-long Knesset debate that preceded the December 11 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, quoting the Biblical verse in Deuteronomy 10:19.

The Population and Immigration Authority says more than 40,000 African migrants are residing in Israel illegally 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 area.

Many migrants say they are fleeing conflict and persecution and are seeking refugee status. Israeli officials contend they are mostly 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, will be closed three months from December 16, according to the decision, unless ministers seek another extension.

Marissa Newman contributed to this report.

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