Bill would limit detention of migrants to 20 months

Rights groups protest new proposal; court gave December 22 deadline for legislation, or it will free 2,500 held at Holot facility

African migrants protesting outside the Holot detention facility in February 2014. (Flash90)
African migrants protesting outside the Holot detention facility in February 2014. (Flash90)

A new 20-month limit will be placed on the confinement of migrants to the Holot detention facility, according to an amendment to a law designed to prevent illegal immigration distributed Wednesday.

The amendment was drawn up by the Interior Ministry after the Supreme Court struck down a previous version in September. The former amendment lacked any time limitation during which asylum seekers could be held in the facility.

It will go before the Knesset for a vote next month.

The new amendment is aimed at stopping the “infiltration phenomenon” of illegal African migrants into Israel, while still upholding the Supreme Court ruling, an immigration administration representative told the Israeli Walla news site.

Further changes to the law included a reduction of roll calls in the facility from three times a day to once a day.

In addition, the incarceration period of newly apprehended migrants in prison will be limited to three months, down from one year, after which they will be transferred to Holot, described by the Israeli government as an open detention facility.

The new terms were agreed upon following two months of intense government efforts to formalize a new draft, Walla reported.

During the government hearings, previous Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar clashed with Justice Ministry representatives over his demand to hold asylum seekers in Holot for a minimum two-year period, and to have new arrivals imprisoned for at least eight months. Failing to reach agreements, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intervened, setting the detention period at 20 months.

In September, the Supreme Court had repealed the amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration law for a second time. Judges claimed Holot to be reminiscent of a prison and not, as the Israeli government presented it, an “open facility”. The court granted the government three months to find an alternative policy before it completely repealed the law.

If final legislative procedures are not completed by December 22, the government will be required to release the estimated 2,500 migrants currently detained in Holot.

On November 6, the Interior Ministry said it would release 138 asylum seekers who had been held at the Holot facility for over two years, in response to a High Court ruling deeming the continued detention illegal.

The new draft of the bill keeps the employment prohibition on Holot detainees, though new measures were placed to deter employers from taking on asylum seekers who were ordered to report at the facility. The law will allow steep fines to be placed on anyone found illegally employing asylum seekers.

Employers of permit-holding asylum seekers will be obliged to garnish the workers wages, and only return the money upon their departure from Israel.

Gilad Erdan on July 8, 2013. (photo credit: Flash 90)
Interior Minister Gilad Erdan on July 8, 2013. (photo credit: Flash 90)

Several human rights groups released a joint statement in reaction the new amendment, claiming the Israeli government is repeating past mistakes.The groups called on Interior Minister Gilad Erdan to find a “true” solution, which they say must include the improvement of infrastructure in neighborhoods with migrant inhabitants, as well as a natural dispersal of asylum seekers throughout Israel by granting employment visas.

Since 2006, some 50,000 Eritreans and Sudanese have entered Israel illegally via the Sinai desert, prompting authorities to construct a fence along the border and build the large Holot detention facility in the Negev desert to house them.

For the past eight years, Israel has struggled to establish and implement a clear legal framework to deal with the large influx of migrants, which has resulted in confusing and often conflicting ad hoc immigration policies.

Tamar Pillegi and AP contributed to this report.

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