Israel's New Holding Center for African Migrants Opens Thursday

New migrants facility is not a prison, state officials maintain, but human rights activists say it is 'worse than the one rejected by the High Court.'

The Defense Ministry will hand over the new facility for African migrants to the Israel Prison Service Thursday. Some 450 detainees, currently held in the Saharonim detention center, are expected to be transferred to the site immediately. Most of them have been imprisoned since they first crossed the Egyptian border between one and two years ago.

The amendment to the law for the prevention of infiltration that was approved by the Knesset on Tuesday morning authorizes the state to force all African migrants to live in the facility for an unlimited period.

Officials of the Border Crossings, Population and Immigration Administration said on Tuesday that, after the first batch of detainees was tranferred from Saharonim, migrants will be sent to the site according to the time they’ve spent in Israel. Those in Israel for the longest period will be the first to be sent to the site.

The High Court of Justice invalidated the previous amendment to the law last September. The new amendment shortens the period of incarceration without trial from three years to one and regulates the operation of the new facility, which will be open during the day and closed at night.

The Knesset’s legal advisor, attorney Eyal Yinon, said two weeks ago that the new amendment would not be approved by the High Court of Justice because the new site is too similar to a prison.

Those held in the center will be forbidden to work and will have to register three times a day - morning, noon and evening. They will not be allowed to leave the site between 10 P.M. and 6 A.M.

Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, who inspected the site on Tuesday, rejected the claims that it resembled a prison. “I invited the press in order not to conceal anything. I wanted you to see it with your own eyes. This will be a fenced site allowing entrance and exit through a main gate,” Aharanovitch said. The minister believes that the High Court will be called to rule on an appeal against the new amendment and that the Attorney General will be able to defend the new arrangement.

The facility holds up to 1,000 people at present and will expand to a capacity of 3,300 migrants within the next two months. In the first stage the site is intended for men only. Aharonovitch says that it will be further enlarged: “We hope it will eventually hold 6,000 or even 9,000 people.”

There are currently some 53,000 migrants in Israel. Border Crossings, Population and Immigration Administration officials are apparently assuming that many of the migrants in the isolated center will despair after several months and agree to receive a $3,500 dollar grant and return to their countries.

The new law stipulates that detainees at the facility will receive “pocket money.” It also allows the state to employ some of them in government projects on the facility’s premises, in return for payment, but without employer-employee relations. Defense Ministry Director General Rotem Peleg said Wednesday that the detainees will receive 500 shekels ($143) per month as pocket money. The payment for work has not yet been set, but Peleg says it will be higher than that received by prisoners – 14 shekels per hour.

Aharonovitch said he was looking for employment opportunities for the detainees: “For the 400-450 people held here, our intention is to at least give them the chance of living a normal life here. A normal life includes training, instruction, study and employment.

Currently, we can employ between 10 and 20 percent of them here in the facility, in exchange for payment of course. We’re trying to find employment in the area – in agriculture, in archeological digs. This issue will also be examined, I hope, in the upcoming days.”

Human rights organizations have severely criticized the new law and the detainment facility, saying it is a de facto prison. “The approval of the new facility, which is worse than the one rejected by the High Court of Justice, puts Israeli democracy to shame” a coalition of NGOs said in a joint statement Wednesday.

The Transportation Ministry is expected to operate 16 busses a day from the facility to Be’er Sheva and back, at a cost of 6 million shekels a year.