A little more than a year since the reopening of an Israel Prison Service holding facility for unaccompanied minors, most of whom are refugees from Sudan and Eritrea, the prison service's own data reflects major problems at the facility - problems that constitute a violation of the international Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Israel is a signatory.
Haaretz has learned that since the facility has been in operation, there have been 19 serious suicide attempts among the 179 children that have been held there. Those 19 cases do not include other attempts that the authorities characterized as efforts to attract attention.
The suicides were prevented due to the alertness of the staff at the facility, which is formally known in Hebrew as the "support facility for foreign unaccompanied youth." The site, which was opened following an examination of the detention of foreign children by the Knesset and the High Court of Justice, was established to avoid the prospect of detaining unaccompanied minor asylum-seekers at prisons for adults. In practice, however, it is run by the Israel Prison Service rather than social welfare or educational authorities.
At maximum capacity, the facility can hold 60 children, meaning that once the facility is full, other children are still sent to regular prisons. The facility was established as a transit station for children who were expected to stay for a short period while they were being evaluated, under the assumption that they would then be referred to dormitories run by the social affairs or education ministry, or that they would be released entirely.
Because the holding facility for foreign youth is not set up to accommodate girls, five unaccompanied foreign girls are being held at the Givon prison.
An inter-ministerial committee rule requires that no child be detained by the prison service for more than 60 days, but the Israel Prison Service's own data reflects cases in which children have remained at the holding facility for 13 months. More than half of all the children are there for more than two months, and 12 have had stays of more than five months. Despite the fact that the committee prohibits children under 14 from being detained at the facility, there are in fact children there who are under 14 years old.
The social affairs and education ministries warned when the inter-ministerial committee's procedures were adopted that they could not accommodate the children. Haaretz has learned, however, that a dormitory at Nitzana that was opened four months ago currently has available space for another 20 children.
Due to an apparent lack of coordination among government agencies, the prison service said it is powerless to place children through the education and social affairs ministries. The Education Ministry said it has not been provided with current information on children awaiting placement, but 12 children are already being prepared for transfer to youth dormitories.
The prison service also noted that some detainees will not be accepted by other residential facilities because they are HIV positive or have hepatitis or tuberculosis, conditions that the facility for unaccompanied minors is not equipped to handle.
The facility was visited recently for the first time by outside parties at the initiative of MK Nitzan Horowitz, in his capacity as chairman of the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers. The visit included representatives of organizations with an interest in providing assistance; members of the press did not accompany them on the visit.
"It's a mark of shame on Israeli society," said Horowitz, "that various authorities, notably the social welfare and education ministries, are evading responsibility and are allowing prison service staff to deal with difficult problems and impossible situations."