Israel Scrambles to Find Place for Jailed African Migrants

Migrants will likely be allowed to come and go during the day and then be locked up at night at new detention facility.

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A vacant detention facility in the Negev will apparently be used to house African migrants who, currently imprisoned in the Saharonim detention facility, must be released by order of the High Court of Justice. Proposals for the use of the Sadot detention facility include a semi-open living concept.

Last month the High Court invalidated an amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law that would allow for the incarceration of asylum seekers from Africa for up to three years. As a result, government ministries have been scrambling to find a housing solution for the migrants. Using the facility at Sadot is the solution being promoted by numerous government officials.

The compound, which was planned to ultimately house 11,000 people, currently has living quarters for some 3,300 situated in huge shipping containers that have been renovated into living quarters.

Haaretz has learned, however, that the Israel Prison Service is reluctant to run Sadot as an open housing compound, saying its people don’t have experience running such a facility. As a result, a plan to run it as a half-open, half-closed facility is taking shape – the migrants will be permitted to come and go during the day, while at night they will have to return. Prison Service Commissioner Aharon Franco is scheduled to present the plan for operating Sadot at a hearing on the issue in the Prime Minister’s Office today.

The surrounding Ramat Negev Regional Council, however, objects to this arrangement. It is demanding answers to such questions as where exactly the migrants will be wandering during the day, with only army bases and tiny communities located in the facility’s immediate surroundings. The closest community, for example, is Kadesh Barnea, which, with only 40 families, is one of the larger communities in the Nitzana district. If even 1,800 migrants are housed at Sadot, it would essentially be the regional council’s largest “town.”

Sadot has remained unoccupied because of a reduced flow of migrants. It was originally planned to be a closed and gated compound that would provide all the needs of those held there, from clinics and kindergartens to barbershops, sports facilities and even plots for micro-farming. It does not have waste treatment facility. If Sadot is actually populated, waste water will have to be treated by the area’s oxygenation ponds.

The Prison Service would not comment for this report. The Defense Ministry, which built the Sadot compound, would not say what adjustments would be needed to turn it into open housing, how much this would cost or how long it would take. The facility has so far cost NIS 250 million. The Defense Ministry responded, “The Defense Ministry built the Sadot detention facility, which is a civilian and not a military project, at the behest of the government as its executive arm. Deciding when and how to populate the facility is [the purview] of the government and not the Defense Ministry.” 

Archive photo of African migrants held at Saharonim detention center. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

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