Migrants at Levinsky Park in southern Tel Aviv
Migrants at Levinsky Park in southern Tel Aviv, September 2013. Photo by Moti Milrod
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet voted unanimously on Sunday to allocate NIS 440 million to deal with African asylum-seekers in the coming year, with most of the money going toward a new detention center in the Negev. The ministers likewise voted as one to support a bill coming to the Knesset on Tuesday that would effectively keep the illegal migrants inside the detention center around the clock, even though it is billed as an "open" facility.

Most of the money approved will go to defray the cost of establishing and operating the Negev center, but some will also be spent on “increasing the personal safety” in south Tel Aviv, where many African migrants live. Some 550 new positions have been created to implement the program in the Public Security Ministry, the Population and Immigration Authority and the Economy Ministry.

The cabinet also approved a proposal by Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, supported by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to raise from $1,500 to $3,500 the grant given to African migrants who agree to leave the country.

“We are determined to remove the tens of thousands of infiltrators who are here, after we lowered to zero the number of work-seeking infiltrators who have entered Israel’s cities,” Netanyahu said at the cabinet meeting. He said the measures the cabinet passed on Sunday were “proportionate and essential to protect the Jewish and democratic character of the state, and will restore security to Israel’s citizens, while maintaining the directives of the High Court and international law.”

The plan includes beefing up the police presence in south Tel Aviv, though not in other areas where a large number of African asylum-seekers live. Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonvitch said the 130 more police called for by the plan would “significantly increase enforcement and help improved personal security and enforcement [against] crime in the area.”

All migrants must report to facility

The new amendment, which Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar is to present for its first Knesset vote on Tuesday, has been harshly criticized by human rights groups and the opposition.

The amendment cuts from three years to one the term of detention without trial for African migrants who enter the country illegally. It also establishes a new detention center, which will be closed only at night. The amendment states that newly arrived illegal migrants, as well as those already in Israel, must report to the center. They will not be allowed to work and they will be required to report there for roll call three times a day. Migrants who breach the conditions of residence in the new facility, can be sent to an officially closed facility. The state pledges to provide food, a bed, and health and welfare services at the new facility, according to the amendments.

The chairwoman of the Knesset Committee on Migrants, MK Michal Rozin, said MKs do not know what they will be voting on. “We can’t understand who will live in the facility, … what sanitation conditions they will have, what welfare conditions or how much money the state intends to spend on each of these issues.” Rozin said the Knesset should not pass a law in the short span of two weeks that is so significant for the lives of tens of thousands of people, and so costly, without knowing the answers to these and other questions.

MK Dov Khenin (Hadash) said the new facility would not only infringe on the rights of the migrants, it would cost millions of shekels that will be taken from the funding of social programs. “Bottom line, even if they lock up 3,000 people in the new facility, what about the 50,000 who are now in the streets of south Tel Aviv and other poor areas?” he asked.

Khenin said the government's policy had to be reversed. “It’s time for an entirely new direction. To start treating the people who come from Africa seeking life as people, and as long as they cannot be returned to their countries of origin, to allow them to work in israel instead of the foreign workers whom the state continues to bring in every year,” Khenin maintained.