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The Israel Defense Forces has been holding some 20 refugees and migrant workers from Africa - including pregnant women and a 10-year-old boy who was separated from his parents while crossing into the country - at a soldiers' hostel in Be'er Sheva for the last three weeks, even though the police and Israel Prisons Service are supposed to deal with infiltrators once they cross the border.

This is apparently the longest the army has ever held a group of infiltrators.

The IDF said it is holding the Africans because the refugee camp at Ketziot Prison has no more room. But nongovernmental organizations active in the field, such as the Hotline for Migrant Workers, claim that the IDF has no authority to hold the infiltrators, and is also not prepared to care for them.

"Even if the Africans were arrested legally," added attorney Yonatan Berman of the Hotline, "the state has promised the High Court of Justice that attorney Elad Azar, an aide to the defense minister, would hear the cases of all detained infiltrators within 14 days of their arrival - which has not happened with this group."

The IDF Spokesman's Office responded that "in line with the government's instructions," the IDF deals with all infiltrators, as per the Law for Preventing Infiltration, until they can either be deported to Egypt or transferred to the care of the civilian authorities.

An army source added that the hostel is a humane solution to the problem. "We don't want to keep them on bases, and when the prisons service and the police didn't take them, we decided to put them, for a short while, in the soldiers' hostel," he explained.

The refugees are in residential quarters and are allowed to watch television in the lobby, but cannot leave the building. They are let out only to eat meals in the dining hall, and are then returned. The rules have been tightened since some of the refugees fled the hostel over the weekend.

"When we go for meals, they take us in a line and we have to walk slowly, so we won't run away," said one woman. "If someone doesn't go to eat, he is locked in his room."

B., the 10-year-old, is from Darfur. He has been here for three weeks. His parents were caught by Egyptian security personnel before they made it over the border, and he has no idea what happened to them.

"During the first few days, he wouldn't eat and didn't want to talk; he just cried," said S., from Eritrea, during a conversation last Thursday.

"Then I adjusted," chimed in B., with a smile. But he said that he would rather be in the refugee camp at Ketziot Prison, where the family friend who carried him over the border on his shoulders is interned. After some thought, he added that he would also like another shirt, so that he will something to wear while his only existing shirt is being washed.

S. would like to help the boy, but they have no common language. "I look at him and think of my children, who I left at home in Eritrea," she said.

S. was forced to flee after her husband deserted the army and fled to Ethiopia. The government demanded that she pay a $3,000 fine as punishment for his offense, but she didn't have the money and was thrown in jail. After about six weeks in prison, under harsh conditions, a relative bribed a guard to let her escape. But S. was told to flee quickly, without even seeing her mother or her children, aged 8 and 12. After a difficult two-month trek through Africa, she finally reached Israel.

Now, no longer worried about physical survival, she is trying to come to terms with the loss of her family. "My husband is in Ethiopia, my mother and children are in Eritrea and I don't know if I'll ever see them again, or what will become of me," S. said. "The conditions here are good and we are well treated, but I escaped from jail, and now I'm back in jail."