A Nigerian woman and her four children were deported from Israel on Saturday. The children, two to seven years of age, had been at the Givon Prison in Ramle with their mother for almost a month and a half. Two other girls, aged one and a half and three and a half, are at the same prison with their mother, an illegal migrant from Ethiopia.
The deportation of the Nigerian woman was disclosed by Yanir Kozin in the daily Maariv. The disclosure led to a debate at the Knesset and criticism by politicians, but Israel has been incarcerating children for years and the authorities have been criticized for this by the state comptroller and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. Since 2011, hundreds of children have been imprisoned under conditions described as harsh and in violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Up to 2011, the Population and Immigration Authority avoided deporting women and their children, preferring to deport the fathers, so that the women and children follow the men. In 2011 the Authority started deporting families. The holding of minors behind bars occurred after they crossed the border with Egypt or when they were in Israel illegally with their families, who were placed in jail until their deportation.
Between 2007 and 2012 the prison service held 1,547 illegal minors in their facilities. According to the state comptroller’s 2013 report, 97 minors with an average age of three years and five months were deported before July 2012. Before deportation they were held at the Yahalom detention facility at Ben-Gurion International Airport, which is supervised by the Population and Immigration Authority.
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A 2014 report by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants and the UN Refugee Agency showed the conditions under which children were incarcerated with their parents. “We were put into a room which wasn’t very clean, with one closed window. It was suffocating,” says A., a mother who was locked up with her baby in 2014. “I didn’t have soap to wash the baby’s bottle or hot water for preparing food. I banged on the door, asking for hot water. It took a long time. I washed my son in the sink with cold water.”
D. is another woman jailed with her baby that year: “I had almost no milk substitute left. I asked the guards, I begged them. They told me to wait until supplies arrived. I waited for a long time but to my disappointment they didn’t buy any milk. I asked again when they’d bring some. One of them said he’d ask the boss. I couldn’t wait and asked another guard, telling him I needed it right away. He told me to write down what I needed. I asked for formula, yogurt and mineral water. I waited again for 24 hours and didn’t get any milk or yogurt, only mineral water. I then reduced the amount of milk I gave my baby.”
The report noted that “the objectives sought by jailing children in Israel can be attained by other means, less harmful ones. Despite this, imprisoning children has become the first default option the state uses in contending with children who have no legal standing.”
Attorney Oded Feller from ACRI told Haaretz that “we can’t accept the indefinite incarceration of children and parents in Israeli jails. One doesn’t have to be an expert to know that this is destructive, and it’s not a coincidence that international law determines that incarceration of children should always be the last resort. In recent years the Population and Immigration Authority was presented with alternatives, but despite sharp criticism by the comptroller and Knesset committees, the authority refuses to examine these options.”
The 2013 comptroller’s report notes that the state must act in a way that leaves no doubt that it follows the guidelines of the UN convention, which determine that “incarceration of a child is only a last resort, used for very brief periods.” The comptroller wrote that the authority “must conduct an extensive review of the alternatives offered in order to create a bank of options that would be examined in each specific case. Only when no alternative exists should the detention facility be used.”
One needn’t be a child psychologist to understand that detention and incarceration are dangerous and harmful for children” wrote Rotem Ilan, head of the children’s project at ACRI, in a 2015 article. “The literature points to serious and irreversible damage caused by detention, incarceration and deportation to the physical and mental health of children, as well as to their normal development.” In 2014 human rights groups and the psychology department at Tel Aviv University conducted a study in this matter. It showed the dire distress and post-traumatic stress caused to parents and children subjected to such treatment.
In response, the Population and Immigration Authority said the matter is under review. Regarding the number of incarcerated children, Haaretz was told to ask the Prison Service, which referred us back to the authority. “The incarcerated person is always the adult. We are doing all we can to improve conditions at our facility,” said the authority. “We are not responsible for conditions in the Prison Service facilities.”