Israel admitted this week that it has not finished examining a single one of the 1,404 asylum applications filed by migrants in the country's detention centers. The state also told the High Court of Justice recently that most of these migrants are labor seekers, rather than refugees, despite having failed to complete a detailed investigation into their backgrounds.
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Both of these statements were written in briefs filed in response to a petition against a new law that allows anyone who crosses the border illegally to be jailed for three years or more.
In a brief filed two weeks ago, the state asserted that most illegal migrants have come to Israel for economic reasons. Paragraph 44, for instance, said the new law – an amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law – was meant “to stem the wave of infiltration, of substantial dimensions, that Israel has suffered in recent years, which is mainly a wave of economic migration.” Similarly, Paragraph 90 said the law was meant to stop “large-scale economic migration.”
But in a supplementary brief filed this week, in response to the petitioners’ request for further information, the state admitted that it had not yet finished examining any asylum requests.
"The decision-making process on the matter of asylum requests by the Eritrean and Sudanese nationals held in custody who filed such requests has not been completed, and the requests are in various stages of consideration,” it said.
This seems to contradict the state’s claim that the new law “ensures that any infiltrator who submits an individual asylum request will benefit from a swift and efficient examination of his request.” The law says the examination of such applications must begin within three months of filing and end within nine months.
Attorney Yonatan Berman, who is representing some of the petitioners, harshly criticized the state’s response.
“For about a year now, the Interior Ministry has held 2,000 asylum seekers, including torture victims and children, in administrative detention under harsh conditions, even though there is no possibility of deporting them,” said Berman, who heads the Clinic for Migrants’ Rights at the College of Law and Business in Ramat Gan.
"The fact that it hasn’t finished considering even one asylum request shows the cruelty of this lengthy imprisonment and the great deception the state is perpetrating. While the Interior Ministry tells the court and the public that none of those imprisoned are refugees, it turns out their status has never been examined.”
According to the data the state submitted to the court, there are around 56,000 illegal migrants in Israel, of whom 66 percent are Eritreans, 25 percent are Sudanese and the rest are from other African countries. The Eritreans and Sudanese can’t be deported because they enjoy collective protection.
Some 2,000 illegal migrants are being held in Israeli jails, and of these, about 1,750 are being held under the new law, which took effect in June 2012. Most of the migrants are being held in the Saharonim detention center – 1,630 altogether, including 1,416 men, 203 women and 11 children.
The state declined to say how many of these migrants were imprisoned under a provision that allows any migrant suspected of a crime to be jailed and stripped of his visa, even if there isn’t enough evidence to indict him. But it did provide some other previously unknown statistics.
It said that while no Eritreans or Sudanese have been deported since the new law took effect, three Eritreans and 2,104 Sudanese have left voluntarily.
But of those who allegedly left voluntarily, 534 had been in jail. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees holds that there is no such thing as voluntary departure from jail, since anyone who is imprisoned is under duress.
The brief also revealed that about 160 migrants are being held in a wing of Saharonim where inmates are limited to four hours a day outside, rather than being able to spend as much time as they wish in the yard. Most of them were transferred there recently, the state said, because they refused to participate in the daily lineup where the wardens check to make sure they are all present.
On Sunday, an expanded panel of nine justices is slated to hear the petition, which was filed by five human rights groups: the Hotline for Migrant Workers, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, ASSAF – Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel, Kav La'oved and the African Refugee Development Center.
Unusually, UNHCR asked to file an amicus curiae brief in support of the petitioners. An organization representing residents of south Tel Aviv, where many of the migrants live, asked to file a brief supporting the state’s position.