African migrants - Daniel Tchetchik
African migrants in south Tel Aviv's Levinski Part. Photo by Daniel Tchetchik
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A law granting Israeli authorities the power to detain illegal migrants for up to three years came into effect on Sunday, in the wake of widening public controversy over the influx of African migrants who cross into Israel along its border with Egypt.

The law makes illegal migrants and asylum seekers liable to jail, without trial or deportation, if caught staying in Israel for long periods. In addition, anyone helping migrants or providing them with shelter could face prison sentences of between five and 15 years.

The law amended the Prevention of Infiltration Law of 1954, passed to prevent the entry of Palestinians as part of emergency legislation. The law is expanded to address migrant workers or asylum seekers who enter Israel without posing a threat to Israel's security.

According to the law, migrant workers already here could be jailed for the most minor offense such as spraying graffiti or stealing a bicycle - infractions for which they would not have been detained before.

So far, all migrants who have been caught by the Israel Defense Forces on the Israel-Egypt border have been transferred to the Saharonim detention facility which holds 2,000 spaces.

The facility is currently being expanded to 5,400. The Interior Ministry has reported that they are implementing the amendment and will fill up Saharonim, where they will be held until the ministry "finds other solutions."

According to the Interior Ministry, the Saharonim detention center will run out of space within a month.

All those detained go through an identification process and a medical examination. Those who file for asylum receive a temporary visa to remain in Israel. Sudanese and Eritreans, however, are not allowed to file for asylum, although they are automatically eligible for temporary shelter and a one-way ticket to Tel Aviv. Some migrants continue independently to Arad or Eilat where they often have acquaintances.

According to the ministry, up to 60,000 African migrant currently live in Israel, with 2,031 entering in the month of May alone.

Human rights organizations see the amendment as a harsh step which contradicts the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (CRSR). According to the Hotline for Migrant Workers, the law was "born in sin" and is a "dark moment for Israel."

"Instead of acting like all civilized countries and verifying requests for asylum and granting refugee status to those who are eligible, which Israel is obligated to do under the UN convention, the state sees mass imprisonment of thousands of people, women and children, whose only offense was seeking escape from murderous regimes, as a solution to the problem. This solution will not solve a thing as it is neither humane nor effective. 

In a statement, the Israel Prison Services said that it was ready to "take in as many illegal residents as come to its facilities, with the required detainment authority and according to time of detention."

"For this purpose, several wards outside Saharonim have been converted, and we will prepare according to need," the statement added.

Meanwhile on Sunday, Israeli daily Maariv published an interview with Interior Minister Eli Yishai, in which he stated that most of the "Muslims that arrive here do not even believe that this country belongs to us, to the white man." 

"I will continue the struggle until the end of my term, with no compramises," Yishai continued, stating that he would use "all the tools to expel the foreigners, until not one infiltrator remains."