Asylum Seekers in Israel Face Further Restrictions in New Bill Approved for Vote

Among legislation amendments approved for vote, asylum seekers would face prison for violating restrictions on their movement, while Holot detention center is to be kept open until mid-March

Asylum seekers protest in Jerusalem, January 26, 2017.
Emil Salman

A Knesset committee approved for vote a range of legislation amendments regarding asylum seekers on Wednesday.

The proposed amendments would permit the imprisonment of asylum seekers who violate the geographical limitations imposed upon them by the state, would extend the penalization of employers who hire them, and would extend the ban on asylum seekers taking money out of the country.

As part of the legislation approved for vote by the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee, the Holot detention center would be kept open at least until mid-March.

If no further extension is approved, the detention center, residents of which are free to leave but must report for roll call, will then be shut down. Opened in 2013, about 1.5 billion shekels ($429 million) has been spent in building and operating it.

As part of the legislation approved for vote, asylum seekers will face imprisonment if they violate the geographical limitations imposed on them. In addition, the committee supported a proposed three-year extension to a temporary order allowing administrative fines to be imposed on employers who hire asylum seekers who lack work permits. The panel also voted in favor of a one-year extension to a temporary order that bars asylum seekers from taking money out of the country. 

All of the proposed legislation green lighted by the committee require two more votes by the Knesset as a whole for their passage.

The decision to close Holot coincides with a government plan to expel Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers to a third country and to jail those who refuse to leave Israel.

Daniel Salomon, the legal counsel to the Population and Immigration Authority, told Wednesday's committee session that no order was being made at this time to close the Holot detention center even though, he said, such a decision could have been taken. Instead, an extension of time will be granted for Holot's operation while the progress of the expulsion program is monitored, he explained.

At the moment, political officials want to devote their efforts to sending asylum seekers to a third country, Salomon said. Those that refuse to be expelled to a third country, i.e. Rwanda, can be held in custody until they to agree to leave, Salomon added.

Meretz lawmaker Tamar Zandberg claimed that such a policy could not be carried out, adding that if it had been possible, it would already have been done at the behest of those Knesset members who have advocated such a move.

"There is also no such thing as imprisonment without trial and without a time limitation," Zandberg said. "We therefore will not see people thrown into jail here in a wholesale manner. People cannot be put into a detention center without trial without examining their requests for asylum."

Sharon Harel, a senior member of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel said the policy of expulsion or imprisonment is not consistent with the international refugee convention of which Israel is a signatory.

"This involves two populations for whom, in light of the situation in their countries of origin, it can be assumed that most are in need of international protection. Punishing the population for illegal entry through such a law or through other plans and rules is in conflict with the refugee convention and with the international right to request political asylum," she said.

"Any application of policy on the subject of forcible removal and imprisonment must be taken after clarifying who the people are who are entitled to protection and against whom the policy cannot be applied."  The government's approach is to carry this out in reverse order, she said, adding: "Israel has to assume its share of the burden of responsibility to those people who need international protection."

According to the Population and Immigration Authority, there are currently about 35,500 Eritrean and Sudanese nationals in Israel, along with about 5,000 children born to them in Israel. About 12,360 Eritreans and Sudanese have filed requests for asylum, about 5,800 of whom have not yet received a response. Israel has only granted asylum to 10 Eritreans.