SAHARONIM – Last summer, Israel passed an amendment to the 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Law, which allows refugees to be held for a minimum of three years without detention without a trial or charges being brought against them.
According to the law, refugees from “enemy states” can be held in indefinite detention, even if they have not been convicted of a crime. The law is applicable to minors and does not distinguish between asylum seekers, authorized immigrants and “infiltrators” who want to harm Israel’s security. The 1954 law was originally designed to prevent Arab “infiltrators” from crossing the border into Israel.
Israel admits that the law has a negative impact on the freedom of undocumented African immigrants, but it says it is for the good cause.
Israel says the amendment on the “prevention of infiltration” is consistent with “the values of the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” It is constitutional and, in a word: “reasonable.” The “reason,” is the fact that the country could not stand becoming a “center of attraction” for thousands of Africans – men, women and children – who arrive each month through the Sinai desert.
Asylum-seekers and undocumented immigrants arrested under the amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law are housed at the Saharonim detention facility, three kilometers from the Egyptian border, near Nitzana, in the scorching hot Negev desert.
The refugees are kept at Saharonim for an “unlimited period,” of a minimum of three years. The only way detainees can arrive at a trial is if they agree to go home to their native countries. After three years, their release can be “considered” by a judge. It is a law that humanitarian associations consider heinous, but it has its logic – this punitive treatment dissuades other candidates attracted by the Jewish state that they see as an economic Eldorado.
The Israeli law is a cold-hearted monster: it does not want to hear about “refugees,” and does not differentiate between Africans who come from countries where they risk persecutions, like Eritrea or Sudan, and the other countries. Of course, the 2,400 detainees held at Saharonim can apply for asylum in Israel, but no such requests have been granted since the prison opened in July 2007.
In May, the state advised the Supreme Court to reject a petition submitted by different human rights organizations to repeal the amendment, which they say is unconstitutional according to both Israeli and international law. The state’s 97-page submission argued that incarceration was required in order to maintain state sovereignty and reduce the incentive for “infiltrators.”
And indeed, the Israeli government takes drastic steps to maintain its sovereignty. Saharonim is one among many others. There are only a few kilometers left until the brand new five meters high barbed wire fence that runs along the entire 240-kilometer Egyptian border is complete.
Israel’s plan is working: illegal immigration has almost completely ceased. The consequence is that thousands of African migrants are trapped in the Sinai desert, a lawless zone where Bedouin tribes put them in horrifying camps where reports are rampant of abuse and rape, sometimes for months on end, until they can pay up a ransom. About 250 people who have escaped the Sinai torture camps are now being held in Saharonim.
NGOs who denounce the treatment of asylum-seekers as criminals have not been entirely unsuccessful. On May 6, nine Eritreans and their 10 children – aged from 18 months old to seven years old – were freed after being held, for some, for about a year.
It was human rights NGO Hotline for Migrant Workers, who led this victorious fight against the Israeli justice system. The latter ended up by admitting that being minors could constitute “special humanitarian grounds” justifying their release from the Saharonim detention facility. In the center, there are about 15 children who are younger than 10 years of age and around 150 women. We do not know the number of the others – the 10 to 18 years old children still being detained.
You would think that now that the Egyptian border has been rendered unbreachable, there is no need for Saharonim to exist. This is not the case: Among the 55,000 undocumented Africans who live in Israel, hundreds have been arrested in the past few years, being considered as “infiltrators who endanger Israeli national security.” In April the Knesset adopted a law barring undocumented immigrants from sending funds abroad, which of course is sent home to their families.
In May, we learned that the Israeli police had collected about a thousand DNA samples from African immigrants who entered illegally Israel since the beginning of 2012. Just another measure to deter undocumented immigrants from crossing over into Israel. Saharonim is not going to be closing its doors any time soon.