Discipline and Punish: Blueprint for Migrant Incarceration

The draft of a tent town being built in the south of Israel for African migrant workers shows conditions will be harsher than in most Israeli prisons.

Closed-off spaces, each one containing a few dozen, densely packed tents a mere three meters away from each other; a toilet and shower for every ten residents. Welcome to the blueprint for the Negev's new tent town, which is currently being built on the ruins of an old Israel Defense Forces compound.

The plans, obtained by Haaretz, shed light on future realities to be faced by thousands of migrant workers from Africa.

The construction work is presently being carried out with vigor. Official statements indicate that one prison strip out of four planned strips will be completed and ready for inhabitants in another two weeks.

On a visit to the area on Monday, dozens of tents erected on the ground could be seen, along with parts of the shower and toilet facilities. Electricity lines are being installed, and a fence that will encircle the compound is almost complete.

The new tent town, called Nahal Raviv Habitation Center by the Ministry of Defense, will ultimately host some 4,000 migrants from Africa, a number comparable to the total number of residents in the Ramat Hanegev regional council, where the tent town is located. The original plan called for 23 residents in each tent. That number, however, was reduced in the past few weeks. It is unclear exactly how many migrants will be placed in each tent, but officials say it will likely be around 12-15.

These residents will join migrants who are already confined at the Ketziot prison facility, as well as thousands of others who will be placed in a center near Ketziot that has been under construction for several months. The Defense Ministry also has plans to establish other tent compounds, though it has yet to break ground on these additional projects. All told, the ministry is building habitation centers - tents and permanent structures - for tens of thousands of African migrants.

While the construction of other migrant facilities requires some time, Nahal Raviv can be built relatively quickly, since it will be on an abandoned army base that already contained infrastructure, such as asphalt roads and water and electricity grids. Under the blueprint, this tent town will feature four prison "strips," each comprised of four closed-off areas built on the remains of the deserted base. The plans feature common spaces, including a dining area, a club area, a laundry facility and a religious worship area. Tents will be erected on asphalt, around these public areas. Nets to provide shade will be set up and some sports facilities will be built for residents.

All four of the residence areas will receive services from a central administration compound, an area that will include administrative offices, an education center, a health clinic and a library. Administration officials will live on their own strip, separate from the four confinement strips. This strip will also hold a medical facility and an absorption center, to assist the migrants when they are first brought to the tent town.

Better off behind bars

Living conditions in this tent town are harsher than conditions in which the average Israeli prison inmate lives, which are spelled out in regulations authorized by the Knesset in 2010. Under the prison rules, cells cannot hold more than four beds and each cell must have a toilet and sink; the space allotted for each prisoner in the cell cannot be less than 4.5 square meters. At the tent town, each migrant will be allotted just 3.94 square meters.

Building permits provided for the establishment of the tent compound state that it is to exist for only 30 months. However, responding to a petition filed by the nonprofit organization Bimkom - Planners for Planning Rights, which objects to the establishment of the tent town, the state suggested that this 30-month period is likely to be extended, if deemed necessary by the Interior Ministry's National Council for Planning and Construction.

On the other hand, attorney Uri Keydar from the State Prosecutor's Office, who submitted the state's response to Bimkom's petition, wrote that the official period of residence for the migrants, as it stands now, is actually shorter than 30 months, "since the 30 month period began on June 19, 2012."

Nir Shalev, a planner affiliated with Bimkom, contends that the planned tent town will create "awful living conditions; my hope is that the Knesset or the courts will grasp this fact, and bring a halt to the humanitarian disaster that is about to happen here." Bimkom requested that a work injunction be issued to stop the tent town's establishment, but that request was denied.

Residents rail against plan

Another objection to the tent town's establishment has come from Ramat Hanegev residents, who held a protest yesterday across from the Jerusalem office where a committee was meeting to iron out the details of the tent town. Resident Moki Azulai said the 20,000 migrants who will be placed in facilities in the area "will constitute four times the number of the council's residents, and that is liable to cause hygienic issues, and a mortal blow to infrastructure resources."

Last month, Ramat Hanegev mayor, Shmuel Rifman, issued a work stoppage order against the tent town. That order, however, was overridden by the district committee for planning and construction, and the work at the tent town resumed.

Rifman said he opposed the construction for humanitarian reasons. "We decided to support the establishment of a facility that provides a roof and normal living conditions for migrants: water, education and a health facility. However, we will not allow tents to be set up for migrants who will live in an area where the temperatures reach 52 degrees Celsius, in inhumane circumstances, at a site where no sewage and water facilities have been set up to the present day," Rifman told Haaretz on Monday.

Despite the protests, however, committee members agreed to approve the plan as-is. Committee members also discussed the handling of possible objections submitted by regional committees and local residents.

Migrant workers, not refugees

Last month, the head of enforcement at the Population, Immigration and Border Authority, Yossi Edelstein, emphasized that the state does not consider the Africans entering Israel to be refugees. A refugee, Edelstein said, is "someone who flees for his life, and asks for sanctuary in the first state he reaches." Since Israel is not the first port of call for members of this population, he added, they are to be considered "not refugees, but rather migrant workers."

Nonetheless, Edelstein continued, "the immigration authority will operate absorption centers for these migrant infiltrators, where the migrants' requests for entry to the country will be assessed within one week's time." He also suggested that if Israel delivers a clear message to the Africans that migrants will not be allowed entry into cities to look for work, and that they will receive no more than humanitarian assistance, the scope of the migrant worker issue will gradually be reduced.

The Ministry of Defense said that the plans for the habitation centers for the migrants are based on the guidelines for National Master Plan 46, which were approved by the government. The centers address residents' needs, and the plans allow for allocation of at least four meters of space for each resident, an official said. The ministry also noted that it will establish dozens of public buildings at each habitation center, and will ensure that there are "shaded areas, multi-purpose facilities, vocational workshops, education centers, worship areas, kitchens, health facilities, offices and more." It added that one shower stall for every ten residents is "a better ratio than one can find in most IDF bases."

Regarding the 30-month period of residence in the tent town compound, the ministry said that it is "working in accordance with the prime minister's directives, and will replace tents in these centers in the shortest time frame" possible.