In Legal Limbo, Dozens of Africans Languishing in Israeli Jail for Years

Sometimes they lack valid travel papers, or their country refuses to take them back or has no representation in Israel. Sometimes language differences pose a problem.

Ilan Lior
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African migrants behind barbed wire at the Saharonim detention facility in the Negev, 2012.
African migrants behind barbed wire at the Saharonim detention facility in the Negev, 2012.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Ilan Lior

Dozens of foreign nationals usually from Africa have been imprisoned in Israel for years because they are here illegally but it is impossible to deport them, according to a report by the group Hotline for Refugees and Migrants.

According to the Israel Prison Service, in December 2015, 142 asylum seekers had been imprisoned for more than a year, 20 of them for more than three years, and some even up to eight years.

The law allows the arrest of a foreign national who does not have a valid permit to stay in Israel. The legislation states that the detention is not punitive but intended to ensure the migrant’s deportation.

According to the law, a person who has been held in prison for more than two months can be released on bail unless he poses a danger to the public or if deportation is delayed because he is not cooperating with the authorities. This last clause was designed to speed up the deportation process.

According to the report, in most cases asylum seekers’ imprisonment is extended for reasons that do not depend on them. These include a lack of valid travel papers, their country’s refusal to take them back, their country’s lack of representation in Israel, and language differences that make it impossible for them to cooperate with the deportation process.

File photo: Two asylum seekers walk past a fence at the Holot detention facility in the Negev.
File photo: Two asylum seekers walk past a fence at the Holot detention facility in the Negev.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Some prisoners’ asylum requests were denied by Israel, but they refuse to return to their homeland, fearing for their lives. Some asylum seekers who were released after years in prison were not allowed to work, so they were imprisoned again because they could not arrange their departure.

An Ivory Coast national spent eight years in prison because he was not identified by his country’s embassy in Israel. A migrant from Guinea, which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, has been imprisoned for seven years.

Two migrants from Mali and Sierra Leone have been locked up for six years. The first speaks only a tribal language and cannot explain why he fears for his life if he is returned. The second says he is looking for his Israeli mother.

Two others, who say they are  Eritrean asylum seekers who survived camps in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, have been locked up for five years because the population authority claims they are Ethiopians.

The report tells of an Eritrean who was held in Saharonim Prison for almost three years. He refused the population authority’s demand that he go to the Eritrean embassy to prove his nationality, saying he feared for his safety.

He agreed to do so only after three years in prison. The Eritrean embassy recognized him and he was released on the order of a custody appeals tribunal.

In another case, a Senegalese national was imprisoned for four years because he did not have documents and was afraid to go home with an Israeli travel pass. He was ultimately released, flew to Senegal and was returned to Israel two weeks later because the Senegalese authorities refused to accept the travel pass.

On his return to Israel he was imprisoned again. He was recently released by the appeals tribunal.

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