Israeli Interior Minister: Limit Detention of African Asylum Seekers to One Year

Arye Dery's bid represents a decrease from current 20 months, but change may be only temporary.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Interior Minister Arye Dery plans to submit for cabinet approval Sunday a proposal to limit asylum seekers’ detention at the Holot facility to one year, down from the current 20 months.

Haaretz has learned that Dery has also decided to suspend, for the time, being several tougher restrictions on the asylum seekers that his predecessor Silvan Shalom had planned to introduce to the Prevention of Infiltration Law.

Last August the High Court of Justice struck down a proposal allowing the detention of asylum seekers in Holot for a year and eight months. The nine-justice panel ruled 8-1 that such a term was excessive, and gave the Knesset six months to amend the law and set a shorter maximum detention period.

“The maximum period set for residence at the facility is unconstitutional,” wrote court President Miriam Naor for the majority, adding that such an extensive period “has no parallel in comparative law.”

Arye Dery faces the camera during a meeting, October 2015.
Alex Kolomoisky

“A person’s freedom is the basic foundation of his life and existence,” the ruling continued. “Depriving him of it, even if only for a day, substantially harms his rights. ... It must be remembered that these are infiltrators who can’t be deported from Israel and who represent no concrete danger to the state’s security or the lives of its citizens. Their only sin was entering our borders illegally, something for which the state as a rule isn’t entitled to punish them,” the ruling said.

The court ruled that if by February 10 a new amendment is not approved, the state will be required to close down the Holot facility. The court had previously rejected two previous amendments.

At the end of November the Interior Ministry issued a memorandum including several changes in the law, enabling harsher restrictions on the asylum seekers.

The memorandum said asylum seekers will be sent to Holot for a year, but the interior minister was authorized to extend that period to 18 months “for special reasons.” It also said asylum seekers who enter Israel after the amendment was passed would be detained in Holot for 18 months – despite the High Court’s ruling to limit the detention to one year.

The memorandum also revoked the ban on summoning fathers of minors to Holot and enabling Population and Immigration Authority officials to impose harsher penalties on asylum seekers for being absent from the facility.

Another clause restricted the legal procedures asylum seekers could resort to and stipulated that it would be impossible to issue an order suspending the validity of a summons to Holot. This would make it compulsory for anyone summoned to the facility to go there, even if his status, application and claims had not been examined yet.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein had warned Shalom and Interior Ministry officials that the legislation they were drafting was not in keeping with constitutional standards and could be struck down by the High Court again, for a fourth time. Weinstein demanded that they shorten the detention period to a year, as the court had stipulated.

But Shalom insisted on keeping the changes and was about to submit them to the cabinet’s approval on the day he announced his retirement from politics, in the wake of mounting allegations against him of sexual harassment.

Due to the pressure to complete the proposal in time, Dery decided to suspend the planned changes and make do with limiting asylum seekers’ incarceration to one year. His move is in accordance with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan. Dery, who entered office less than two weeks ago, plans to submit the amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law after holding meetings and consultations with Population and Immigration Authority and Justice Ministry officials.

However, Dery hasn’t rejected the changes permanently, and may submit a more comprehensive proposal for the cabinet and Knesset’s approval later.

For the past three weeks the Holot facility has been fully occupied for the first time since it went into operation. Some 3,360 asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan are detained in the facility, Haaretz has reported.

The Population and Immigration Authority put off new summonses to the facility and discharged detainees who had been held for more than nine months, to make room for new ones.

Former interior ministers Gideon Sa’ar, Gilad Erdan and Silvan Shalom all proposed expanding Holot, but did not advance the plan.