Report: Israel Illegally Incarcerated African Migrants in Regular Prisons

The Hotline for Migrant Workers says dozens of migrants were transferred to criminal prisons in violation of international and Israeli law.

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Dozens of African migrants have been incarcerated in regular prisons in recent years in violation of the law, despite never having been convicted of a crime, a new report reveals.

Under a legislation overturned Monday by the High Court of Justice, which allowed illegal migrants to be imprisoned for up to three years even if they had no criminal conviction, migrants were supposed to be held in special detention facilities, not regular prisons. The law, which took effect in June 2012, also required them to be held “in a separate cell from criminal prisoners or detainees.”

But the Hotline for Migrant Workers discovered that dozens of migrants were transferred to regular prisons, due to suicidal tendencies, psychological distress or disciplinary problems, or because they needed medical supervision, were HIV carriers or were suffering from AIDS. Most “shared a cell with criminal prisoners, in direct violation of the law,” the report said.

“The very transfer of people who aren’t criminals, and who have never been convicted in criminal court, to criminal jails violates both international and Israeli law,” it said.

The issue of migrants being held in regular prisons first hit the headlines in January 2000, when a Nigerian labor migrant committed suicide in his cell at Nitzan Prison, where he was held for 10 months. The ensuing media uproar prompted the Israel Prison Service to stop jailing migrants in regular prisons, with one exception – those with HIV. The service said only regular prisons were equipped to provide them with proper medical care.

In late 2010, while trying to locate an HIV carrier who had been moved from the Saharonim facility, where migrants are usually held, a Hotline employee discovered by chance that several migrants were being held in Eshel Prison. When the organization asked about this, the prison service said that migrants were being held at other prisons, too.

The report said migrants are transferred from special facilities like Saharonim to regular prisons arbitrarily. Nor are there any rules on how long these migrants are kept in regular jails. “More than once, the detainees were simply forgotten there,” the report said.

One of the cases described is that of S., an Eritrean national who was arrested and sent to Saharonim in 2011. In December that year, he tried to kill himself and was taken to hospital. His cellmate tried to find out what happened to him after that. When he couldn’t, he notified the Hotline, which searched for him in vain.

Five months later, in May 2012, S. finally called a relative and reported that he was in the mental health wing of Ayalon Prison. The search failed to find him because his name was written incorrectly in the prison records.

About six weeks later, S. was released, but since his relatives felt they had no way of getting him proper medical care outside of prison, they decided to send him back to Eritrea.

The report slammed “the dangerous obscurity that surrounds the process of transferring these people” to regular prisons.

“Even if there is a proven need for special supervision of these detainees, moving them to a criminal prison does not under any circumstances constitute a solution – even a temporary one – to the problem,” it continued, adding that such transfers amount to “an additional, unjustified punishment with devastating effects, both short-term and long-term.”

The prison service said it provides “humane and professional” solutions for all migrants and “rejects any claim to the contrary.” Migrants are moved to regular prisons “only in isolated cases, due to special needs, and sometimes even for their personal benefit,” it added.

Ayalon Prison. Credit: Daniel Bar-On

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